Schools and families should work together to counteract ‘disadvantage’

Schools receive a pupil premium for some students Picture: GETTY IMAGES / ISTOCKPHOTO

Schools receive a pupil premium for some students Picture: GETTY IMAGES / ISTOCKPHOTO - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The word ‘disadvantaged’ could be applied to most of us much of the time. We might be disadvantaged in a particular situation by not having the resources, skills, attributes, or knowledge in comparison with others; our own physical or mental abilities might put us at a disadvantage or we might be disadvantaged because of the way others view us and as a result of their perception or bias.

To educationalists the term ‘disadvantage’ has a more specific meaning but one which we rarely explain or clarify to those people we apply it to. Without their permission, we label families and young people as ‘disadvantaged’ and we talk about them widely and freely as if they don’t actually exist.

Government ministers have rarely got through a coronavirus daily briefing without mentioning the impact of not being in school on ‘our disadvantaged children’. There is an assumption that people know who they are talking about.

The label ‘disadvantaged children’ applies to those who claim free school meals, those who have claimed free school meals at any point in the last six years (known as ‘ever 6’), those who are ‘looked after’ by the state, or those who were previously ‘looked after’ and are now in a different arrangement, for example, they’ve been adopted.

It is assumed when children come from families with low incomes, or there is little family support (or lots of school moves) then they are at a disadvantage when compared to their classmates.

Many studies suggest that children in this ‘disadvantaged’ group don’t do as well in school, they don’t achieve the grades that others achieve or take the same routes after leaving school that others do - aspirations can be lower in terms of academic outcomes and futures.

Extra funding is awarded to schools based on the number of disadvantaged students they have on roll each January - funding known as ‘pupil premium’.

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From April 2020, the annual allocations for those claiming free school meals including the ‘ever 6’ group, increased slightly to £1,345 per pupil in primary schools and £955 per pupil in secondary. Looked after children get £2,345. Children with parents in the armed forces are awarded a service premium of £310 per child for pastoral support.

It is extremely welcome funding, and is used in a variety of often very creative ways to counteract the problems that can exist and to provide extra support for learning. It is most successfully used where schools really know their families well and can understand and target it most precisely.

Fifty years ago my family moved to Ipswich. My father was a Church of England clergyman and, because his income was low, along with my siblings we were entitled to claim free school meals.

As a family with a low income there were things that we couldn’t afford to have and places that were too expensive to visit but I wouldn’t for one second claim that we were disadvantaged.

I struggle today with the label and the assumptions that we make. I also feel that we need to come clean with families as many of them have no idea of our plans to counteract their disadvantages. Our ‘done to’ or ‘top down’ approach has not sufficiently counteracted disadvantage and none of the national data suggests that it has improved social mobility or created a more socially equitable society.

Last week the government announced an extra £1 billion would be spent on making up for lost ground in education as a result of school closures and a loss of learning during the pandemic - much of this targeted at disadvantaged pupils.

The reality is that this will be the vast majority of our learners. No parent wants their child to be disadvantaged - it is time for us to work openly and honestly with our families, time to share what we know works well, so that they can do it as well, and time for us to be honest about the problems that their children face so that we can work on the solutions together.

• Clare Flintoff is CEO at ASSET Education, multi-academy trust that runs a number of primary schools in Suffolk.