What if we are the hope and we fail?

As educationalists, we are the greatest hope and the biggest resource that children and their families have to reverse disadvantage* and give each child the agency to decide their future. However, we are falling short and we need to face the inconvenient truth that we are part of the problem. We must take our opportunity fulfil our obligation to those who trust us and need us most. It is time for us to feel outraged and impassioned by the inequity and asymmetry in our society and, dare we admit it, within our schools. We need to understand and overcome the forces that act explicitly and implicitly to reinforce disadvantage over time; we need to systemically and collectively reconsider what is normal (and acceptable).

“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein, 2021)

The pandemic has not been felt evenly, it has exposed and entrenched disadvantage and threatens to define and harm a generation. Without greater action and decisive intervention our legacy will reflect that we did not do enough for those that needed us most. To remove doubt, there is no choice, no opt out, if you are in our sector you are complicit, you are already responsible. Together we have the collective capability and expertise to make a difference. Together we must reverse disadvantage and close the 19.9 month gap that opens by age 16 in the South West (10.5 months at the end of Primary) so that those that have the least are supported to take what is offered…

“One measure of poverty is how little you have. Another is how difficult you find it to take advantage of what others try to give you.” (Michael Lewis, 2021)

*throughout this piece there are generalisations that place children as either advantaged or disadvantaged, the reality is far more complex, there is a full range of advantage and disadvantage (and attainment) and not all advantaged are advantaged and not all disadvantaged are disadvantaged. This simplification does not deny the need to consider all children as individuals.


I am more than a number

“Don’t call me disadvantaged, I’m Alice, and to clarify I may be presently experiencing disadvantage or have a legacy of disadvantage, but it has not, does not and will not define me. I am Alice, I don’t need a label I need equity… to be offered the supported opportunity and high expectations that allow me to take control of my life; to have the agency to choose what I do, where I go, with whom, when…. I do not need you to collude with me, or pity me, I need you to notice me, know me, to teach me, to support me to step forward, not backward. I need you to give me what I need (deserve)… and one more thing, I may appear less ambitious than others, I’m not, but I have experienced less opportunity and this can erode what I believe is possible.”

As educators we need to fully understand those we educate, not on the surface, but as humans who are finding their way in our world. Reversing disadvantage is a deeply personal challenge and mission for us all. Not least because when we know something about someone it becomes personal. Only action born out of knowing individual children, where it is everyone’s business and privileged in everything we do, will we have the chance to support all children who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage; that is what Alice and the 144,310 individuals who are presently experiencing disadvantaged in the South West (19.9%) need from us.


Privileging disadvantage in everything that we do

How do we mobilise and organise our effort, through everyone, for every child; delivering the equity that all children deserve? By privileging disadvantaged learners in everything we do, by applying the lens of disadvantage and understanding what it is to be presently or previously disadvantaged we will turn the dial and make the difference that we came into education to achieve. We can do this by optimising the talent that exists across our region…

“We need a social contract that is about pooling and sharing more risks with each other to reduce the worries we all face while optimising the use of talent across our sector and enabling individuals to contribute as much as they can. It also means caring about the well-being not just of our own children, but of others’ too, since they will all occupy the same world in future.” (Minouche Shafik, 2020)


Through the lens of disadvantage | the sobering truth of the reality of disadvantage

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” (Matthew Rycroft)

Once you apply the disadvantage lens and seek to see through their eyes all provision and teaching is thrown into a different light; a sobering light, one that reflects the built in tilt towards advantaged children. What if we considered performance and the quality of provision only in terms of the attendance, attainment and progress of disadvantaged learners (remembering that it is attainment that trumps progress for unlocking future opportunity for disadvantaged learners)?

When we apply the lens of disadvantage we may well see the wood for the trees. This is something as educators and as a system we are not strong at; we see averages, big cohort numbers, we hide groups in plain sight and amalgamate – when what we need to do is seek to understand. When we apply our disadvantage lens we might actually be measuring the true efficacy and impact of our provision. Only strong provision reaches through to disadvantaged learners and closes gaps; it is a strong litmus test for effectiveness.


Even over…

What if we committed to disadvantage even over… other groups, not that other groups are not important, but even over? Without this focus any push to shift provision, improve teaching and tackle the omnipresent forces that widen the gap between the have and have nots, will fail. If we are to deliver any sense of equity through education, then we must be unswerving; we may need to strive for something else, something much harder to achieve, something that is not predetermined through previous opportunity and experience.

“This is Vanity Fair a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”


Accumulated advantage versus accumulated disadvantage over time

To understand what it is to be disadvantaged (previously or presently) we need to understand the forces within society, culture and within our schools that accumulate advantage and disadvantage over time. To do this we need to see pupils and students as the outcome of everything they have interacted with; we tell stories to ourselves about who we are and these are a result of our (positive) interactions, (supported) opportunities and (rich) experiences over time. The result is that only an equitable approach has a chance of offering individual children what they (actually) need.

“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

How far do you recognise the two journeys below? Disadvantaged journey on the left and an advantaged journey on the right, considering their past and their future…

How do we shift the narrative our children tell themselves through life (a life within which we are one of the (important) narrators)? Understanding that we need to focus as much on the future for disadvantaged learners and giving them what they need to thrive as well as addressing their key gaps from their lack of opportunity and support in the past.


70 plays 30

What if, in general terms, advantaged children already carry much of what they need into our schools? An advantage that allows them to make sense of even weak provision. What if…

  • Advantaged children bring 70% of what they need through the school gates?
  • Those previously or presently experiencing disadvantage may only bring 30% of what they need?

If this is true then schools and provision should be evaluated on their ability to support those that bring the least from outside and to not over-evaluate or exaggerate our impact on advantaged children. After all the quality of teaching matters much more to a disadvantaged child than an advantaged child, who can make sense of poor provision…


Hunt don’t Fish

To fish is to cast out and seek any fish; to hunt is to purposefully track and find a specific quarry. To achieve equity through education we need to hunt not fish. Those presently or previously experiencing disadvantage do not need equality where we hope class-wide teaching or cohort opportunity will level-up and provide the equity needed; it will not. To hunt is to understand the needs of each child, to have high expectations and be tenacious about ensuring disadvantaged learners are making more progress so that their attainment has a chance of making a difference; one that opens doors (good doors) in their future.


Equity through Education

What is clear is that we should seek equity over equality to support disadvantaged learners to have the (supported) opportunity and (leveraging) experiences that will allow them to feel success. How far do we actually give what every disadvantaged child needs?

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)


Attainment mobility

“Enabling children to attain higher than would be expected based on their starting points.”

Attainment Mobility is the reversing of delayed attainment, linguistic under-privilege and lack of early opportunity, so that children self select (not self de-select) and accumulate advantage (not disadvantage) through life.

Having the highest of expectations of all pupils, irrespective of background. Remembering that disadvantaged pupils don’t lack talent or ability, but can lack opportunity and support over time. Prior attainment should not set limits on our ambitions for all pupils.

…And it is attainment that matters

To be clear, progress may well not be enough; it is attainment that counts, it is attainment that opens doors and provides the future opportunity and the empowerment and agency to make decisions.


Have unswerving expectations – it is the background music of advantaged children

What stands out in an advantaged upbringing is the level of expectation from birth. It is an upbringing that is full of rules, routines, structure, boundaries, etiquette, expectation and self-fulfilling achievement. It permeates language, attitudes and mindset. It establishes the locus of control to be with the child and not the environment, it gives the power of control to each child to be the commander of their destiny; it is an advantage that is demanding, but liberating.

Our disadvantaged children need us to be unswerving in our expectations of what they can do, they do not need us to collude and lower our expectations.


Keep it simple | What matters is Great Teaching and (really) Knowing each child

  • How far do we focus on the main thing being the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
    • what matters most, having high expectations of what all learners can do. Provokes interest and curiosity by making learning compelling and important.
    • direct instruction, explanation, modellingprogression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge. In particular building strong narratives and schema that create the structure for knowledge and understanding that many advantaged children bring to the school.
    • deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks. Enabling children to achieve meaningful work that allows them to see themselves in a new light, forever changed.
    • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedbackrapid, high quality feedback loops.
    • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.

Future thinking | less about what has been missed, more about what could be…

How far do we consider the future and what individuals need to thrive and make the most of the opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged individuals to be competitive… going forward in their future?

Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)

“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)


It is not ability or talent, it is the combination of opportunity, support and experiences over time that put advantaged ahead

Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.

What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?

Our use of language around this is really important; and our reference to talent and ability is ubiquitous. We should take all reference to natural talent, x factor, ability etc. and talk about present level of attainment; so our language does not limit learners and we do not infer attainment as pre-determined.

“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)


“Don’t give me abstract, disconnected facts/knowledge to recall over time | build schema, the framework for me to understand.”

“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)

We need to tread carefully around knowledge/retrieval and ensure that this is also about understanding/explanation, and not in that order. We need teaching to be about concepts, threads, big ideas, narrative that has a much greater chance of developing and deepening schema so that learning is much more about being memorable, structured and connected. So that knowledge is judiciously selected to deepen understanding beyond memory and abstract recall. This is particularly important for disadvantaged who will make no sense of abstract compilation of knowledge – they need the narrative and schema that advantaged learners have accumulated through time as part of their enhanced access to cultural capital.

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)


Beware strategies that make us feel good | the seating plan fallacy

When seeking to reverse disadvantage, as a sector, we are prone to gimmicks and good intentions that can do the reverse of what we intend. For example, labels are dangerous, they can confer, define and condemn. Labels give us excuses, they deepen stereotypes and generalisations and worse they give us reasons to normalise disadvantage or excuse (explain) lower attainment.

“…don’t label me, place me in a seat, or put a dot or code next to my face on an A4 page and do nothing different. You are conferring disadvantage on me; it is delayed attainment not ability and I need you to really know me and know what I need.”

If we are to use tools like seating plans, then it must move to direct action or it has the danger of widening not closing the gap.


What if this is the challenge of our time, and we fail?

We have the capability, the expertise and shared understanding to do better by the families and children that need us most. We are not yet meeting this challenge, but we can. We also have the opportunity and obligation to do so. It has never been more challenging to grow up in our world and our record in the South West is not yet one we can be proud of.

How then, do we privilege those presently and previously experiencing disadvantage – let us open that debate and move to action. Apply the disadvantaged lens and ask searching questions about what we should value and how we must act. Now is the time to use the expertise and experience across our region to make a discernible difference.


This piece follows on from two previous pieces: Part Two | urgent action required, addressing disadvantage and Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage

October 2021 | Dan Nicholls

1 thought on “What if we are the hope and we fail?

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: 10th October 2021 | Class Teaching

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