How can schools narrow the disadvantage gap?

Regardless of support to deliver the 'levelling up' agenda, it’s every school’s mission – and research provides useful best bets, writes Nick Wood

Regardless of support to deliver the 'levelling up' agenda, it’s every school’s mission – and research provides useful best bets, writes Nick Wood

28 Feb 2022, 5:00

Sometimes, the depth of the challenge can seem a little overwhelming, but in my role as curriculum lead in a middle school, I have to believe that we can have a significant impact on addressing the disadvantage gap. Decisions over staffing, timetabling, curriculum allocation and staff development are all levers to address this challenge. But which to pull? When? And how hard? Thankfully, there’s useful research to steer us.

Lately, my work towards chartered teacher (leadership) status has required me to reflect on this theme. The result is that tackling disadvantage feels a little less overwhelming.

As in many other schools, at St Egwin’s we endeavour to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, using traditional subject disciplines as the framework to explore values, academia and culture. The first problem we face is ensuring equal access to that curriculum, and the solution we’ve chosen to focus on is tackling the ‘word gap’.

For us, it’s about creating opportunities to learn about and normalise the use of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary. We teach middle leaders about these tiers, seek to leverage etymology and morphology at every opportunity, and integrate pre-teaching of vocabulary as part of our curriculum planning.

Realistically though, the wealth of knowledge, skills and dispositions young people are capable of acquiring is too broad for any curriculum. So deciding which vocabulary to focus on is part of a bigger conversation about curriculum design and purpose.

Our ethos is to prepare our pupils to become capable of autonomously contributing to an interdependent society, and knowledge is foundational to delivering on that promise. That pupils have a right to acquire what Michael Young refers to as ‘powerful knowledge’ is implicit in every curriculum content debate, ever. Should the music curriculum focus on Mozart or Stormzy? What can we do about the dominance of dead white male voices in the English curriculum? I won’t pretend to have a right answer to these questions, but consistency between our values and our curriculum content matter.

Culture is powerful enough to exacerbate or reduce disparities

And that’s because school culture is also conducive to narrowing the disadvantage gap. It is powerful enough to exacerbate it or to reduce disparities. As Sam Strickland argues in Education Exposed, “Positive behaviour will reverse the Matthew Effect […] for the most disadvantaged are potentially subjected to the lowest behavioural expectations in our schools.” High expectations of pupil behaviour – and an adult culture that enables this, including consistent application of behaviour policies – are prerequisites to deploying a powerful curriculum that is accessible by all.

Of course, schools don’t operate in a vacuum, so maintaining a successful school culture means developing partnerships beyond the school gates as well as within them. Trusting relationships with families are essential to maximising the probability that pupils will buy into the school culture and access its carefully considered curriculum.

But more than that, these parental relationships offer often untapped positive effects that may narrow disadvantage gaps. For example, it is common to hear a parent describe either themselves or their child as ‘not a maths person’. Research tells us this parental ‘failure mindset’ has a direct causal effect on children’s own self-efficacy beliefs. So our parental engagement must go beyond broadcasting our curriculum and values and work to tackle these limiting perceptions.

And when it comes to growth mindsets, perhaps none is more important than our staff’s. Continuous development of a great curriculum and a virtuous school culture are only made possible by investing in their professional development. As Dylan Wiliam wrote, we have to create a culture where every teacher gets better, “not because they are not good enough, but because they can get even better. And, when our teachers get better, our students learn more, are healthier and contribute more to society.”

A curriculum and ethos in tune with each other. A focus on the language needed to access powerful knowledge. High expectations of and high support for students, parents and staff. Many levers are beyond our control as school leaders, but with these at our disposal, tackling disadvantage gaps is already within our reach.

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