Disadvantaged children | think low attainment not low ability


“What if… we view disadvantaged children as low attaining and not as low ability, instil a deep and widely held belief in what is possible and then set eye-watering targets that underline our ambition to overcome the inertia of context.”

It is probably true that… Primary and Secondary schools need to do more to close the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and advantaged children; perhaps seeing it more as low attainment and not low ability or delayed progress and not that there is a limit to a child’s potential. We know that gaps appear early (ages 0-4) and widen through a child’s education. All of which has a deep impact on the child’s life chance and success that ultimately leads to generational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Which begs the question… what does it take to close these gaps and disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity and outcomes?


What if… education reinforces early advantage and accumulated advantage for advantaged students and inadvertently creates conditions where early attainment gaps widen?… do we disadvantage the disadvantaged?

Malcolm Gladwell identifies in Outliers that we often perpetuate early advantage. He exemplifies through the Canadian Ice Hockey League where those children selected at 4 and 5 years old, are generally the oldest and largest children; having their birthdays in Jan, Feb and March. These children enter the hockey Academies, experience great coaching, many hours of practise (largely deliberate in nature) and of course they thrive, out-strip their slightly younger peers and go on to be professionals. Not because they are more gifted or talented than those children born later in the year, but because they were a quarter to fifth older and larger than their peers when selected…what happened next just served to prove the selectors and scouts right.

“Autumn born students showed higher attainment and made more academic progress over KS3.” (DfE, 2012)

What if… as educators and teachers we are complicit in the widening of gaps and perpetuating the early advantage of students from advantaged backgrounds?

“Within the complex landscape of differential attainment, socio- economic disadvantage appears to be the most consistent predictor of attainment, particularly for children and young people from white ethnic groups.” (Ofsted)

What if… we recognise that low attaining disadvantaged children on entry to Primary and Secondary school are actually low attaining and not low ability. What if we are actually see “delayed progress” and not fixed ability or limit our belief in what disadvantaged children can achieve.

What if… there is a wide-held and embedded belief in the ability of all disadvantaged to achieve and attain – life enhancing qualifications and skills that will break the generational cycle of poverty? What if… we did not assume that this belief exists? The type of belief that enables and levers success for disadvantaged students needs to be to depth and has to live and breath in the organisation – it has to be felt and ubiquitous in all that happens.

What if… we build in greater ambition for disadvantaged students? At the start of secondary why do we not set low attaining disadvantaged children a full level of progress each year?

What if… we understand that this higher ambition and action seeks to close early gaps in literacy and numeracy for example – because these gaps disenfranchise children from their education and maintain the loop of poor outcomes, with each generation.

What if… we understood that disadvantaged students are prone to “self de-selection”. They are more likely to see an opportunity, chance or activity as not for them and de-select themselves. What if we had a policy of “meeting them there” – to ensure that disadvantaged children attend extra-curricular events and attend trips etc. … and to deliberately plan lift the cultural capital for each child.

What if… we understand that disadvantaged students are more likely to have an external locus of control and more likely to assume that their experiences and opportunities in life are determined by others and that they are not in control of their own destiny (internal locus of control). All of which links to the self-esteem and self-confidence that is more prevalent in advantaged households, where there is an assumed progression and a greater internal locus that expects individuals to take control of their future; making things happen.

What if… we understood that not all disadvantaged students are disadvantaged and that there are many advantaged students who are disadvantaged? Do we use our own understanding and soft intelligence to identify our actual disadvantaged cohort?

What if… we sense-checked our pupil premium spending to ensure that the strategies we are using are not in fact enabling advantaged students to flourish further,(obviously no bad thing) but that they targeted at enabling disadvantaged to close the gap and achieve. This can only be born out of a deep understanding of what being disadvantaged really means.

What if… we realise that pupils premium spending should be proportionate to the numbers of disadvantaged and that only by measuring impact can we truly understand what and how we close the attainment gaps?

What if… we gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged – not because we intend to mis-understand the complexity of socio-economic disadvantage by creating unhelpful generalisations, but so we can find a language, approaches, strategies and teaching that unlocks and reverses the disadvantaged inertia that slows/delays progress.

Key factors can include: worklessness, low parental education, lower ambition, less well informed choices, poor home study routines, poor diet, overcrowding, alcoholism, violence, chaotic homes, lower access to books, tables, further resources, reduced cultural capital, visits, newspapers, discussion, debate… (obviously these are generalisations – there are many disadvantaged backgrounds that support and provide conditions for children to thrive and achieve beyond that achieved in advantaged households.)

“Students’ academic attainment and progress are strongly influenced by the education level of their parents. Influence of Fathers’ qualification levels only half as strong as mothers. Positive parenting experiences, especially the early years Home Learning Environment (HLE) helps to promote better longer term outcomes.” (DfE, 2012)

By understanding context we can inform the quality of provision that enables all children to exploit their one chance.


What if… we understood that gaps in attainment happen early ages 0-4 and that these gaps typically widen through Primary and Secondary education. “Success is what sociologist would call accumulative advantage.” (Gladwell, 2008)

“Overall, attainment gaps are present from the early stages of education and progressively worsen during transition and through each phase.” (Ofsted)

What if… we understood that these gaps widen because of the Matthew Effect: “it is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.” (Gladwell, 2008)

Differences in academic attainment and social-behavioural development related to background emerged early (at age 3) and remained fairly stable to age 14. (DfE, 2012)

What if…  the quality of Nursery education is a key determining factor. It is not uncommon for gaps to be significant at Reception and that this often directly relates to whether the child has attended Nursery and then whether this is of good quality.

What if… we understood that the summer holiday break (in this instance in the US) has a greater impact on disadvantaged children than advantaged children exemplify the home-advantage of advantaged children…

“The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest kids come back from their holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost four points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.” … “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way that privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” (Gladwell, Outliers, 2008)

What if… we took seriously our collective system leadership responsibility for supporting families and by extension all children to make strong progress between 0 and 4. Fully exploiting the potential offered by all-through Academies. This connects the dots and works to remove/improve damaging transitions.

What if… all leaders and teachers are leaders of learning? And that this is never divorced from an on-going and deep dialogue about how we best-teach and support all children to close gaps. Indeed we have a moral obligation as leaders to close these gaps, because only then do we enhance life chances, break the generational cycle of poverty and leave a legacy that we can be proud of.

“Disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes.” (Ofsted)

What if… targets for disadvantaged students were set to close gaps (not to maintain them)? Too often we set targets that simply maintain the gap (for example 4 levels progress for all). And in this moment we limit what is possible and set our ambition for disadvantaged students – we are confirming previous disadvantage – we are seeing disadvantaged students attainment as their potential and limiting our ambition for them. Disadvantaged students need the opposite of this … to be offered a deep belief in them and their ability and that with the appropriate provision delayed progress can be reversed – not least because we should see low attainment not ability and that progress is delayed not a reflection on the child’s ability or potential.

What if… we understand that quality first teaching is what matters for exploiting potential and enabling accelerated progress of disadvantaged students? Indeed quality teaching has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children (and in contrast to summer holiday progress, above)…


…underlining that disadvantaged students make greater progress than advantaged students when they receive quality teaching – perhaps highlighting the appetite of disadvantaged children to learn, again reflecting delayed progress not innate ability.

“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, such pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers … For poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher can result in a deficit of a whole year’s learning.” (Ofsted)

What if… we realised that where Academies only go as far as identifying disadvantaged students on seating plans (or similar) that this could be limiting potential of disadvantaged students; as teachers make unhelpful assumptions about the child’s potential and become content that this child is keeping pace (or slightly behind the progress of advantaged children!)? Quite the opposite is required; disadvantaged children need to outstrip the progress of advantaged children – targets need to reflect greater gains in progress.

What if… we enabled a continuous discussion and strategy-sharing between teachers and pastoral staff to identify strategies and approaches that specifically support disadvantaged children – and that these are made explicit and employed to support students to make accelerated progress.

What if… we recognised that it is the quality of feedback (built-in, not after the event – that is particularly important for disadvantaged children) and what is done with it as well as the quality of differentiation that has the strongest opportunity to accelerate the progress of disadvantaged students.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… we considered the language that we use in lessons and across the Academy when talking about children with low attainment or delayed progress? How often do we talk about ability as if it is fixed or imply that there are limits and ceilings for some children. How far do we employ a growth mindset approach and a language of effort and opportunity?

What if… we remember that effort and opportunity are the greatest determinant on success in almost every area of life? Dweck, Coyle and Gladwell provide compelling evidence that learning and progress is achieved through effort, deliberate practice and the development of myelin within the brain. Disadvantaged students are not wired differently or born less clever…all of which demonstrates that (almost) all gaps can be closed and rates of progress increased. (Accepting that extreme neglect in early childhood can create physical changes in the brain).

Perhaps all of this will help to disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity that hold disadvantaged children back; reversing the cycle of poverty.

“Children experiencing poverty face multiple disadvantages that often continue throughout their lives and all too often continue on to the next generation.” (Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17)

Maybe then…

  • There would be a deep and wide-held belief in the possibility of closing all gaps. That there is eye-watering ambition for all students.
  • We would not equate low attainment as low ability. Such that our targets should reflect an acknowledgement that this is delayed progress.
  • We would develop  a greater understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged.
  • We understand that the educational system actually reinforces and perpetuates gaps, because cultural capital and early advantage enables advantaged students flourish.
  • We use system leadership and connections to equalise access to early advantage when children are 0-4 and through Primary into Secondary.
  • We no longer set targets for disadvantaged that simply maintain or worse open gaps wider for disadvantaged students.
  • We would realise that we often put into place strategies and approaches (perhaps through pupil premium funding) that simply enable advantaged students to continue their “accumulated advantage.”
  • We continue to invest in quality first teaching (particularly feedback and differentiation) so that disadvantaged children are freed and supported to make progress.
  • We remind and promote that ability is not fixed and that through effort and deliberate practise everything is possible.

“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”

May 2015

14 thoughts on “Disadvantaged children | think low attainment not low ability

  1. A thought-provoking post. I like the challenge of ‘what ifs’ to encourage us to tackle problems, raise our expectations and see what is possible. In particular, low literacy levels are preventing students from accessing the curriculum. Sadly, the problem is often seen as being something inherently deficient within the child which leads to ‘supports’ being put in place to compensate rather than actually teaching them to read.
    My ‘what if’? I have two. Firstly, what if every child was taught to read effectively by the end of KS1? It is vital that this happens and we already know how this can be achieved. Until such time as this is a given, this is my second:
    What if secondary schools had effective screening in place to accurately identify students with literacy difficulties, correctly identified the area of difficulty and were committed to put in place an effective literacy intervention? It is possible for these students to catch up and to catch up quickly. It is a cliche but learning to read is life-changing. Effective input at secondary school is probably their last opportunity.

    • Really useful ideas; I like your What ifs… Like you suggest we have the tools and strategies at our disposal to close gaps and that where these are well timed they could make a significant difference. The truth however is that we allow preconceptions around student attainment and delayed progress to dominate our ambition and expectations for children.

      Literacy is spot on in terms of catching up – low literacy essentially disenfranchises children from learning – they then assume that education is not for them and that it is to be endured – hence the loop of poverty continues.

      Thanks for sharing the blog and for the comments.

      • Thank you. I am quite passionate about the elimination of adolescent illiteracy! You are quite right about allowing our preconceptions to impact our expectations. If you haven’t already, you might like to see my post ‘7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read’ – http://wp.me/p4hKgx-a2

  2. I think in terms of disadvantage you have brought up many pertinent points. We once taught Shakespeare (Macbeth) to some of the most disenfranchised children I have taught. It wasn’t a rap version either!! We used a Marcia Williams book because they were 8-9 to make it more accessible but the main themes and quotes were still there. It was the best 4 weeks we had in literacy that year. All the ‘relate’ it to their background units were rubbish in comparison. I think that the way EYFS in particular reinforces these problems needs to be looked at. There is not sufficient effort at all to enable pupils to close the gap at an age where they are still so receptive to ideas. Instead everything is about ‘relevance’ and as a result it gets dumbed down. I know it would at times take a lot of explaining. However, I have just spent two weeks going over grammar terms with Year 5 children and really exploring all the words – including a, the, prepositions – the kind of words that are in sentences but they don’t know what they do or why they are there. We spent a lot of time with me reading sentences and them looking up words in dictionaries to see what type of word it is. It doesn’t sound very interesting as a lesson but it has had them engaged and learning. That’s all that matters. In the end – like you say what is disadvantage? What does it mean? Instead of pitying these children we need to support them to achieve and stop lowering expectations because of what we meet in the first place. I taught some Year 3’s about different types of Ancient Greek government – they loved it!! But the thing is they are not meant to as what is relevant is obviously them learning about going to the local shops!! It’s pointless trying to discuss it with some in primary school as they simply will not shift their ideas about children learning. Time to take off the rose tinted glasses and look at the situation clearly.

  3. A thought provoking piece – thank you!
    I will take issue with the Bad Teacher factoid, however, which I wrote about here: http://icingonthecakeblog.weebly.com/blog/stop-repeating-nonsense-about-bad-teachers-just-stop-it It simply isn’t true that teachers can be identified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their students results alone, nor is it true that disadvantaged students can make a years more progress (what ever that might mean) with a ‘better’ teacher.

  4. You have shared key ideas on the development and importance of early literacy. This together with a Reggio inspired philosophy which views all children as being capable will set the framework for a strong foundation for learning.

  5. This is interesting and I agree entirely with the whole mission – the imperative to tackle the issue. I’m not clear about the target-setting approach and references to ‘a level per year’ (given that levels are such a flawed notion) – or ‘quality first teaching’. I’ve never really understood that phrase. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that we should try hard teach better with deprived students firmly in mind and be more ambitious for all children’s attainment. The Pygmalion Effect. I’d sign up to that. What we need is a deeper understanding of how, exactly, to push students’ learning when they’ve already fallen behind the curve. I’d worry about school leaders simply insisting on setting higher targets without any idea about how to reach them in pedagogical terms. That’s all too common – part and parcel of the grading lessons culture that still infects our system – in my view. Still, this is a good provocation. Thanks

    • Agreed Tom Sherrington! And even better in some cases: what if… Children didn’t have to hit the same targets at the same time in life but were given more time to ‘catch-up’ so to speak… Seems impossible, but who knows?
      I’d love to know the pedagogy proven to push lower attaining students up a notch though!! The biggest influence I have found has simply been inspiration- helping them recognise learning possibilities and life routes for themselves and therefore dig little deeper with their learning because they have a goal.

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