Vulnerable pupils: Identifying invisible barriers to learning

Written by: Ali Williams | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There seem to be so many more barriers to learning now and many of these are seemingly invisible to schools. Ali Williams discusses how schools can identify ‘vulnerability’ and what we can do once we have

The education landscape has changed. We are more than just educators now. Schools are food banks, mental health workers, play therapists, and lifelines for families.

The aim of a school will always be progress and attainment, but how is this achieved in a world where there are so many barriers to learning? Furthermore, what can we do if some of the barriers are invisible?

It is predicted that by 2024 almost 90% of single-parent families and 50% of workers with children will fall below the poverty line (Tims & Sterling, 2022). And Covid hasn’t only cost children two years of education, but the social impact is still being unpicked.

When you combine these aspects, it is getting harder for schools to recognise who is vulnerable and where support is needed.

And when we do identify the barriers, how do we remove them? How do we do this when school budgets are already stretched?

As a school, we have focused our efforts towards pastoral support and to removing barriers to learning. We spent the last term looking at our demographic, our community, and the trajectory of modern Britain. We observed the needs of our early years children, how high-profile behaviour has changed within mainstream, and the impact being seen in the classroom. The feedback was clear – there are lots of vulnerable children within our school that we did not know about. Therefore, there are lots of children that are not receiving any support and have barriers to learning that are not being removed.

What if we tracked vulnerability and monitored the impact this was having? Could we identify interventions that would remove barriers to learning? In addition, could we predict where high-profile behaviour might arise given the metrics we had access to?

The job is not finished, nor do I think it ever will be, but we have learnt some valuable lessons and I am confident that we have supported vulnerable children and families better than we would have without this depth of understanding.

Indicators of vulnerability

We are a medium-sized primary school within Leicester city, our demographic represents multicultural Britain and the growing poverty within the UK. We have one of the fastest growing crime rates in the city and have become one of the most disadvantaged areas in the city over the last few years (UK Crime Stats, 2022).

During the first few weeks of term, we sat down with pastoral staff across the school and looked at what directly impacts our families and children.

We created a list of “indicators” for vulnerability based on our cohort. Some of these offer a clearer picture of vulnerability than others so we ranked them and gave them weighted scores.

For example, a pupil on a child protection plan is obviously vulnerable and this would carry a greater weight than persistent absence. The aim of the weighting system was to see if all “vulnerability” came from obvious indicators, such as child protection plans, looked after status, and criminal activity, or if lower weighted strands such as attendance, SEN and Pupil Premium added up to paint a different picture of vulnerability.

Given the deprivation in our community we wondered how large our upper percentile would be. Would there be themes and patterns? Could we prevent further vulnerability in our community or was this a firefighting exercise?

The results across our tracking presented us with lots of food for thought. There were children whose cumulative score presented a picture of vulnerability that we were aware of and were already supporting.

However, the lower end of the upper percentile was made up of children who ticked lots of smaller boxes. These were the children who would have gone under the radar.

When we discussed these cases with class teachers there was a sense of surprise about the level of vulnerability being indicated. However, teachers also said it provided an explanation for outcomes and behaviour seen in the classroom over the past six to 12 months.

With the current trajectory of our community, and the UK as a whole, where might these children end up without our support and how many more might fall into this category?

How do we respond?

Collecting the data was one aspect but how we responded to it was the key point of this project.

We are fortunate as a school to have a pastoral team made up of an emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA), family support worker (FSW), behaviour mentor, SENCO, and a designated specialist provision lead (DSP lead). As a team we looked at where the need was, what we could do about it, and who the priority was.

We identified where the needs of parents and adults might have directly impacted the children’s mental health and how sessions with our ELSA might support. Children were given bespoke interventions tailored to their individual circumstances based on the metrics we had access to.

Some children focused on anxiety caused by Covid and a sudden change of family circumstances. Others benefited from sessions focusing on managing their own emotions and understanding why they felt angry and frustrated.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach and as a school we recognise that now we have the data we need to focus and prioritise these interventions and responses.

In addition, our FSW looked at families who had not previously struggled financially but this winter had been pushed to the brink and had found themselves in difficulty. The consensus was that these families might be more reluctant to ask for help and so targeting our support would have more of an impact.

How children were set up for the school day was a huge focus. Lots of our children have chaotic home lives and perform the role of mum and dad for younger siblings. Giving them chance to have breakfast, a chat and providing uniform for them before they head anywhere near a classroom felt like a small intervention that would have a big impact.

Within this group of children, we have seen attendance rise, confidence grow, and they are presenting as much happier children within school. I believe we have only just scratched the surface with the level of intervention we need to offer and am excited to see the impact we can have for our children across this academic year.

Whole-school approaches

It was also important to consider what whole school approaches might have an impact given the need of our community. We changed our whole school approach to behaviour. The idea was to create an environment where our children could grow socially and emotionally as well as academically.

We gave children ownership and understanding of their behaviour and how they could positively impact themselves. We used the ideas of Unconditional Positive Regard (Whittaker, 2021) and lessons learnt from social, emotional, and mental health (SEMH) special schools. The approach was centred around positive relationships within the classroom and understanding behaviour as communication.

The Circle of Influence (Whittaker, 2021) gave us a visual tool to focus our work around, highlighting the impact of negative interactions and environments on our children. If, as a school, we could ensure positive interactions and powerful relationships where children see us as more than just teachers, we hope that we can change behaviour for the better.

Furthermore, we have used the metric on vulnerability to predict where high-profile behaviour might be seen next. This has allowed for early intervention and allowed the children to continue to be successful in mainstream. The metrics also provide a useful insight into why high-profile behaviour is being seen and ultimately what is being communicated.

There will of course be vulnerable children that this system does not recognise as needing support. That’s why our approach of positive relationships is so key to our cohort. Where children feel accepted and they know that adults are genuine in their interactions, then we can recognise children who fall outside of our system of vulnerability tracking. Moreover, they will be accepting of intervention and the support provided to them.

As a school, we have seen that our positive relationships have grown with children. This is allowing us to break-down barriers to learning. Barriers that thanks to our approach to identifying vulnerability we can see more clearly. This targeted approach is in its infancy, but I am confident that we will be able to support far more families and children with this approach than we would have before.

It will be fascinating to see the long-term impact on families and our school as we continue to develop and understand this system. This work will allow teachers to focus on educating and inspiring futures. It means we can support a generation that has had to deal with so many challenges in recent years and give them every chance to be successful.

  • Ali Williams is vice-principal at Willowbrook Mead Primary Academy in Leicester, part of The Mead Educational Trust.

Further information & resources

  • Tims & Sterling: The National Living Income, New Economics Foundation, December 2022:
  • UK Crime Stats: Search results for LE5 2NA postcode (accessed December, 2022):
  • Whittaker: The Kindness Principle: Making relational behaviour management work in school, Independent Thinking Press, 2021.

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