Doorstep disadvantage: Beyond the Pupil Premium

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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Do you understand the barriers to learning that poverty creates in your school’s community? Doctoral researcher and teacher, Sean Harris, reflects on some of the lessons he has learned as a school leader, researcher and as somebody who has experienced poverty himself


Fresh out of a leadership development programme and into senior leadership, I was convinced that if I had unwavering moral purpose then I would be able to turn the tide on socio-economic disadvantage. It turns out that the complexity of poverty in schools needs a little more than this to overcome...


Beyond the Pupil Premium champion

In my first week as a senior leader, I recall an executive headteacher introducing me as the “Pupil Premium Champion”, explaining that the performance of disadvantaged pupils was my sole responsibility.

I should have strutted out in Spiderman spandex and told the entire school community that “with great power, comes great responsibility”. I might have had more impact.

My main takeaway working as this so-called “champion” was that poverty is more complex than I had ever understood as a teacher or school leader – arguably more complex than any other issue we face. You cannot “fix it” through the work of one chosen champion.

There is no silver bullet – yet there are principles that might inform our approach to addressing local (doorstep) socio-economic disadvantage in our schools.


What are we trying to fix?

We need to start by understanding the problem. Rowland (2021) states: “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.” He adds: “Be an expert in your students, not in Pupil Premium.”

Commentators 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).

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”.

It follows then that one of the biggest levers to tackling doorstep disadvantage in your community is to understand the specific needs of that community first. This needs to be more forensic than preconceived ideas or “pain points” that we know existed historically in the community, or what one vocal member of a parent Facebook group posts during lockdown.


Listening to local need

Rowland (2021) reminds teachers and leaders that “making assumptions about the needs of pupils risks a ‘supermarket sweep’ approach to addressing disadvantage”. Evidence of need must be based on forensic assessment, and this is more than a classroom examination of a pupil.

Shayne Elsworth, vice-principal at Bede Academy in Northumberland, shares this conviction and continues to look for ways to better read the local landscape of the community the school serves.

He explained: “We regularly listen to pupils, carers and parents, but we cannot become complacent. Currently we are working more closely than ever with community leaders to ask on a regular basis what they are hearing from all avenues in our community about the ‘pain points’ for local people.”

Bede Academy serves the coastal town of Blyth, an area with rich history and scenic beauty but which faces growing levels of disadvantage, like many other coastal towns. Research highlights how many seaside towns are among the most deprived communities in the UK. Sargeant (2019) warns that while rural and coastal towns such as Scarborough are tourist havens, they experience significant hardship; poverty reduces both the quality and length of life. It is bigger than just pupil exam outcomes.

Shayne and the senior leadership team have been working closely with local organisations to think beyond the immediacy of issues caused by the pandemic in their area: “We want to make a habit of talking with our families and with other groups working in the community to discover first-hand what the local difficulties are. It’s why we want to help community leaders set-up a community hub to understand and respond to local need. This has to lead to changes which are more empowering and sustainable, and which go beyond meeting immediate needs, such as the support we provide to the local food banks.”

In this approach to understanding local need, the school is working alongside other schools and networks to renew what they mean by “in-school poverty and disadvantage”. Senior and curriculum leaders are also reviewing their internal CPD programmes to consider how they can develop teacher-education around the poverty agenda.


Sense-check with local leaders

As leaders and teachers, we are used to facing and fixing problems. One of the toughest challenges I encounter as a teacher who is also researching doorstep disadvantage as part of my doctoral studies is resisting the temptation to implement research findings the moment you discover them.

Research evidence needs to be sense-checked and we need to use it to challenge assumptions. Rowland (2021) helpfully states: “Research evidence without the right school culture, values, professional judgement, teacher agency, and consideration of the needs of pupils and families is unlikely to be helpful.”

A key strategy I find helpful as a school leader and an “eduresearcher” is the opportunity to “sense-check” with other professionals what I am reading. For example, I am part of a WhatsApp group called “Demolishing Disadvantage”. Its aim is to bring together practising educators from the local area to facilitate discussion about research and strategies linked to tackling disadvantage.

Group member Alex Fairlamb, assistant headteacher and #WomenEd advocate, explained: “We have a common aim – to help our schools get better at understanding the needs of the children that we serve. It is helpful because each member of the group serves in different contexts and roles. We each have our own professional and personal experiences of poverty that we bring to our roundtable events – we are never looking at the issue of doorstep disadvantage then through the lens of our only school.”


Understand poverty-proofing

The idea of “poverty-proofing” organisations has been around for some time and has been defined as the process by which system-leaders “assess policies and programmes at design, implementation and review stages in relation to the likely impact that they have or have had on poverty and on inequalities which are likely to lead to poverty with a view to poverty reduction” (National Anti-Poverty Strategy, 1999).

In recent years, the poverty-proofing agenda has been applied to schools by the work of charities such as Poverty Proofing the School Day, launched more than 10 years ago by Children North East (for more, see SecEd 2019). The charity works alongside schools and organisations to help diagnose poverty in relation to the school community; considering the structural barriers that face disadvantaged families and ways in which schools can overcome them.

Recently, the charity linked up with the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to develop the Turning the Page on Poverty resource, which is based on their experience of working directly with schools. The resource is freely available and is a practical guide for teachers and system-leaders, with information on poverty and how to reduce the costs of the school day (see further information).


Contribute to research

In the last few months, researchers at Newcastle University have worked alongside the aforementioned charities to find out what the younger generation thinks, needs and wants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With this in mind, the VOICES project has been launched to cover the entire North East region and is working with more than 1,000 children in online focus groups delivered in schools and other community organisations.

Children are given the opportunity to describe their experiences and insights through media including writing, drawing and photography. The 12-month project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s response to Covid-19.

Back at Bede, Shayne Elsworth explained: “We are delighted to be part of the project and it is challenging us to listen more carefully to our students about their actual experience. Our involvement in the project is invaluable. It’s something every school should do.”


The ‘persistent problem’ of doorstep disadvantage

School leadership is arguably far more complex than it ever was, pandemic-management notwithstanding. Kennedy (2016) asserts that teacher-educators have never agreed on a curriculum for effective teacher education. Kennedy argues for “far more attention to the persistent challenges that comprise teaching and to how our knowledge and recommended core practices can address these problems”.

For Kennedy, there is a need for all classroom educators and school leaders to “understand the persistence of these problems” and to think more analytically about them.

We need a renewed understanding of the persistent problem of poverty in our schools – one that moves from broad brush strokes to forensically understanding the doorstep disadvantage in our local community. The time is now.

Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher with Teesside University investigating the ways in which system leaders can help to address poverty and educational inequality in schools. He is also a teacher and middle leader at Bede Academy in Northumberland. You can follow him @SeanHarris_NE. Read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/htu-harris


Hear more from Sean Harris

  • As part of his research for post-doctoral studies, Sean Harris sends out a weekly round-up of research, blogs, tweets and news items that focus on agendas such as poverty and disadvantage. Drop him a tweet at @SeanHarris_NE to be added to this list.
  • Poverty podcast: Sean Harris and the CPAG are due to be among the guests on a forthcoming episode of The SecEd Podcast focused on poverty in schools. This is due out on June 2. Visitwww.sec-ed.co.uk/podcasts/
  • Curriculum Design Online Conference: Sean Harris will lead a keynote session entitled Planning your curriculum with poverty in mind at the Headteacher Update two-day curriculum design conference taking place online on July 6 and 7. Visit www.curriculumconference.com

Further information & resources

  • CPAG: Turning the Page on Poverty: A new resource for teachers and school staff: https://bit.ly/3ajVSpN
  • 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.
  • Holloway et al: At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life, Children’s Commission on Poverty, The Children’s Society, 2014.
  • Kennedy: Parsing the practice of teaching, Journal of Teacher Education (67, 1), American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 2016.
  • 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: Leaning in lockdown: Research brief, Sutton Trust, January 2021: https://bit.ly/3bbqmuy
  • Rowland: Addressing educational disadvantage in schools and colleges: The Essex Way, Unity Research School & Essex County Council, 2021.
  • Sargeant: Life in times of change: Health and hardship in North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire County Council and Health and Wellbeing Board North Yorkshire, 2019: www.nypartnerships.org.uk/DPHAR
  • SecEd: Poverty-proofing the school day, Emma Lee-Potter, February 2019: https://bit.ly/3swnXAb
  • Sobel: Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A handbook for schools, Bloomsbury, 2018.
  • Voices Project: The VOICES website has more information for schools, colleges or community groups in the North East who would like to get involved. Visit www.voicesproject.co.uk or contact lydia.wysocki@ncl.ac.uk or luke.bramhall@children-ne.org.uk


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