Crafting your curriculum with poverty in mind

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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Poverty is an ever-present challenge in our schools and there are important links to our curriculum. Sean Harris, a teacher and post-doctoral researcher investigating poverty in schools, offers practical ways in which we can recalibrate our curriculum with poverty in mind

“Pupils are not at risk of underachievement because of any particular label, such as Pupil Premium. Rather, it is because of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on their learning.”
Marc Rowland, 2021

The P word

Poverty provokes emotion. It is complex. It means disadvantage in many different ways and all of this has been made more complex by the on-going challenges of Covid-19.

It is the disadvantaged pupils who are going to need support to make more progress and it is important that teachers and school leaders have a shared understanding of what poverty means in relation to their setting.

Pupil Premium data may be a starting point, but we need to look beyond this as a measure of poverty and what we mean when we refer to disadvantaged pupils. Indeed, researchers have highlighted the limitations of using Pupil Premium as a core proxy for identifying and responding to socio-economic disadvantage in schools (Gorard, 2014; Holloway et al, 2012; Noden & West, 2009; Montacute & Cullinane, 2021).

We should be asking what poverty looks like in a classroom. In Teaching with Poverty in Mind (2009), American educator Eric Jensen explores primary risk factors linked to disadvantaged pupils. He notes the importance of system leaders knowing that poverty “involves a complex array of risk factors that adversely affect the population in a multitude of ways”.

Daniel Sobel (2018) stresses the need for teachers in schools to place further emphasis on “understanding the attainment gap in the context of a school embedded in a community and producing community-focused solutions that make sense in that context”.

I explore this further and consider possible solutions in my recent article for Headteacher Update, Doorstep disadvantage: Beyond the Pupil Premium (Harris, 2021). (Harris, 2021). (Harris, 2021). But here I want to talk about curriculum and its links to the poverty your pupils face.

Barriers to education and the curriculum

Consider what disadvantage and poverty look like in relation to your school day. Challenges experienced before school, in the canteen and break-time have the potential to walk into our classrooms. Unhealthy eating, poor sleep patterns or peer issues can all get in the way of learning.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Children North East and the National Education Union (NEU) have developed a resource entitled Turning the page on poverty and based on their experience of working directly with schools to reduce socio-economic barriers to learning.

The resource is freely available to all schools and is a practical guide for teachers and system leaders with information on poverty and how to reduce the costs of the school day. This would be a useful starting point before considering the intent of curriculum.

Poverty and the curriculum

Our curriculum is one of the greatest levers for tackling educational disadvantage. It is important to have an awareness of what good curriculum looks like. However, do not get lost in the complexity of the literature. It is about what we teach, how we teach it, and how we check if it has stuck and been understood by our pupils.

In terms of poverty, it is about asking how the curriculum has landed and is experienced by our most disadvantaged children.

It may be useful to remind curriculum architects (and ourselves) of the following:

  • The Pupil Premium is not an effective measure to identifying and responding to all disadvantage in our schools (Gorard, 2014; Holloway et al, 2012; Noden & West, 2009).
  • Attainment at school and continuation in education after school are both heavily influenced by similar indicators of disadvantage (Lessof et al, 2018).
  • Breaking down curriculum content into granular level detail can benefit the most disadvantaged of children in our classrooms (Wiliam, 2013; Myatt, 2018; Hirsch, 1996).
  • However, there is still a limited consensus on what we mean when we talk of “curriculum” – don’t expect all teachers to understand it universally to begin with (Wiliam, 2013; Myatt, 2018).
  • Middle leaders and classroom teachers are crucial in crafting and designing curriculum – it can’t just sit with senior leaders or headteachers (Oates, 2010; Robinson, 2015; Turner, 2016).
  • The most effective curriculum leaders review, discuss and refine their curriculum across topics and subjects (Turner et al, 2016).
  • Disadvantaged children and families have been hit harder than any other pupil groups throughout the pandemic (Adfam 2020; Marmot 2021).

Curriculum planning

Marc Rowland (2021) talks about the need for us to be “experts in our pupils, not the Pupil Premium”. This is critical when it comes to curriculum.

At SecEd’s recent curriculum design conference, I shared the work that I am doing with schools in the North of England to help design curriculum alongside pupils.

I have been working with groups of pupils over the course of the last year to identify with them the core concepts and misconceptions that they may struggle with ahead of introducing new units in the curriculum.

This has involved facilitating informal focus groups with disadvantaged pupils to share with them the programme of study and work with them to consider misconceptions that they or peers may have.

For example, in one RE programme of study, pupils identified that some peers held misconceptions about Britishness and Muslim identity. This was due to having low numbers of pupils from certain ethnicities in the locality and some stereotypical, unchallenged views that a small number of pupils held.

This led to the creation of several lessons to address this and enable disadvantaged pupils to acquire a clear and informed understanding of what it means to be British and Muslim.

At Tees Valley Education Trust, I have been working with groups of primary children to consider how to share curriculum pathways with pupils.

It may look clear to us as educators, but it is important to consider child-friendly language and check for understanding. This is helping to shape how the curriculum is shared with families and others, too.

We have applied for research funding to carry out further investigations into this approach and hope to be able to provide more of a toolkit for schools to adopt in due course. In the meantime, templates and design approaches can be shared. See below for my contact details.

Find your other curriculum architects

In addition to involving children as curriculum architects, be sure to involve other stakeholders and champions of the disadvantaged agenda in your setting. It may be that local community groups, businesses or school-governors can further enhance your curriculum intent and impact. Community stakeholders will be able to support teachers and curriculum leaders in identifying themes or domains of knowledge that local disadvantaged families may struggle to understand at first glance based on local need and challenge.


The Great Teaching Toolkit from Evidence Based Education is a useful starting point for examining more closely some of the specific strategies that can underpin the delivery of curriculum in classrooms too.

Many of the strategies will benefit all pupils but have been collated based on impact evidence with particularly disadvantaged groups.

You should also access research networks that are continuously exploring the poverty agenda in our schools and what good teaching needs to look like: WomenEd, the Education Endowment Foundation, Unity Research School. ResearchEd, EdNorth, Ambition Institute and Teach First are just some examples.


Teacher development and CPD is another of our key levers to tackling educational disadvantage so ensure that our curriculum for teachers and other adults has poverty at its core too.

When exploring teaching strategies, deliberate practice, coaching and other approaches, invite teachers as a learning community to examine what these approaches look like in relation to your most disadvantaged pupils and classes and where the barriers lie.

Rowland (2021) reminds leaders that all staff need to be clear on what good and inclusive teaching looks like. He writes: “A common understanding about the school’s approach to inclusive teaching is vital, from the senior leadership team to the classroom.”

Curriculum leaders, teachers and senior leaders may also benefit from:

  • Evaluating poverty proofing processes with the work of organisations such as Children North East and CPAG, taking into account pupils’ recommendations and ideas.
  • Focusing data reviews or feedback reviews on the diet that disadvantaged children are getting in individual classrooms before exploring other groups of pupils.
  • Examining the affordability and accessibility of curriculum enrichment activities for disadvantaged children and families. It may enhance the learning, but examine the extent to which parents, carers and children can access and benefit from it.
  • Making regular noise about financial entitlements throughout the term. Consider the obvious barriers and restrictions to this for parents and pupils in your school.
  • Explicitly discussing poverty as part of your stakeholder engagement. Help parents and pupils understand that you recognise it is an issue for your community and want to help eradicate the barriers that come from it.

  • Sean Harris is a post-doctoral researcher with Teesside University examining the ways in which schools can get better at understanding and tackling educational disadvantage. Sean is also a middle leader and teacher at Bede Academy in Northumberland. To be added to a weekly roundup of research, blogs and news items that focus on the poverty agenda, drop him a tweet at @SeanHarris_NEtweet at @SeanHarris_NE. Read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Adfam: Families in lockdown: The effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on the family and friends of someone with an alcohol, drug or gambling problem, 2020:
  • CPAG, Children NE, NEU: Turning the Page on Poverty: This free toolkit can be downloaded via
  • Gorard: The link between academies in England, pupil outcomes and local patterns of socio-economic segregation between schools, Research Papers in Education (29,3), 2014.
  • Harris: Doorstep Disadvantage: Beyond the Pupil Premium, Headteacher Update, May 2021:
  • Hirsch: The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Doubleday, 1996.
  • Holloway et al: At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life: Children’s Commission on Poverty, The Children's Society, 2014.
  • Jensen: Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it, ASCD, 2009.
  • Lessof et al: Understanding KS4 attainment and progress, DfE, 2018.
  • Marmot et al: Build Back Fairer: Covid-19, Marmot Review, The Health Foundation, 2021.
  • Myatt: The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence, John Catt Educational. 2018.
  • National Anti-Poverty Strategy: Social Inclusion Strategy: Annual Report of the Inter-Departmental Policy Committee, 1999.
  • Noden & West: Attainment gaps between the most deprived and advantaged schools: A summary and discussion of research by the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics, Sutton Trust, 2009.
  • Montacute & Cullinane: Learning in lockdown: Research brief, Sutton Trust, 2021.
  • Robinson: Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education, Allen Lane, 2015.
  • Rowland: Addressing educational disadvantage in schools and colleges: The Essex Way, Unity Research School & Essex County Council, 2021.
  • SecEd Podcast: Effective Pupil Premium practice in schools, December 2020:
  • SecEd Podcast: Tackling the consequences of poverty, June 2021:
  • Sobel: Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A handbook for schools, Bloomsbury, 2018.
  • Turner: Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design, Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • Wiliam: Principled curriculum, SSAT, 2013.

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