Disadvantage gap

Ofsted and DfE must open their eyes to the realities of ‘disadvantage’

The inspectorate’s data-blind approach treats disadvantage as a homogenous category and hampers efforts to close attainment gaps

The inspectorate’s data-blind approach treats disadvantage as a homogenous category and hampers efforts to close attainment gaps

11 Mar 2024, 5:00

Thirteen years after additional funding was targeted for improving educational outcomes for ‘disadvantaged pupils’ (namely those eligible for free school meals as well as looked-after children), a regression in outcomes suggests the strategy is failing. And the reason for that may be the bluntness of our notion of disadvantage.

At a policy level, one can’t deny that significant gaps in achievement between ‘disadvantaged pupils’ and their peers are widening year on year. However, stark disparities persist around disadvantaged ‘sub-groups’.

By the end of secondary school, Chinese pupils and Indian pupils are one to two years ahead of White British and White and Black Caribbean pupils, while Gypsy Roma pupils are over 2.5 years behind.

In addition, there are major local and regional differences in the gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils. The local authorities of Kingston-upon-Hull, Torbay and Blackpool have the biggest gaps across school phases, while Newham and Slough consistently achieve the smallest at the end of primary and secondary.  London and the West Midlands stand out as regions with the smallest disadvantage gaps across all school phases.

Meanwhile, pupils eligible for free school meals straddle multiple sub-groups, including ethnicity, special educational needs, gender and even ‘more able’. In effect, the umbrella term ‘disadvantaged’ is so broad as to be meaningless. And while schools grapple with matching children to labels, Ofsted’s definition of ‘disadvantaged pupils’ is wider still, including pupils with SEND.

Given these obvious anomalies in vital educational outcomes, why has Ofsted, since 2019, clumped all ‘disadvantaged’ pupils into a single homogenous category – especially as it warned against this very approach in 2015? In education just as in economics, there are clear limitations and caveats to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

The umbrella term ‘disadvantaged’ is so broad as to be meaningless

The Children’s Commissioner recently reported an exponential rise in vulnerable pupils ‘with some form of unmet need’ exiting the state school system. Many of these, undoubtedly tagged as ‘disadvantaged’, have now morphed into ‘invisible’ children. Arguably, they were already invisible to us when we looked through the lens of disadvantage.

The current inspection framework makes limited use of the nuanced information available on pupil groups and regional differences. Apart from resulting in judgements that may or may not be truly representative of a school context, this ‘data blind’ approach to inspection has led to erroneous claims by individual schools and trusts who cite that disadvantaged pupils need a specific approach in order to succeed.

Some advocate for specific policies, pedagogies and practices. Some make unfounded assumptions about low-income families, including about levels of parental support, engagement and aspiration. We’ve seen poorly-evidenced claims that schools where behaviour standards are high see disadvantaged children do disproportionately well. We’ve also noted increased use of the term ‘deprived’ as a synonym for disadvantaged – a term that is at best patronising with reference to anything other than financial deprivation.

Generalised assumptions about and labelling of children, whether they do or don’t attend school, leads to stereotypes and glass ceilings, lowers aspirations and does nothing to change educational outcomes and life chances.

Through Ofsted and whatever other means at its disposal, the DfE should instead investigate the trend in pupils voting with their feet to leave state education. To get a true understanding of the crisis facing our schools, we must be open to all the factors driving poor attainment, attendance, and wellbeing. These include low expectations, bias in assessment, inappropriate curriculum, punitive behaviour management and loss of parental engagement.  

To that end, Ofsted should revert to scrutinising data on disadvantage, exclusions, destinations and outcomes, cross-referencing this against the school’s self-evaluation. In addition, Ofsted should conduct an in-depth survey that identifies why some subgroups and geographical locations achieve better outcomes.

School leaders have it in their gift to implement inclusive strategies and to raise achievement for all pupils regardless of their starting points or socio-economic backgrounds. But they can’t do it with their eyes shut to the nuances of disadvantage by a data-blind accountability system.

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  1. P J Bratt

    Since Christmas in one local school -1 ‘disadvantaged’ infant fly kicks young male teacher, a second child joins in and teacher is sent to hospital. Dreaded offsted inspection soon after ,highly critical from the off. A few weeks later a woman teacher asks in church for prayer for children from difficult homes as staff are buying them breakfast. She also touched on various other stresses that staff and children were suffering. School unhappy with inspection and ask for rerun. Inspectors arrive apparently intent on revenge and seemingly unaware of
    any ‘disadvantages’ children and staff are enduring..Yesterday another request for prayer as Infant refuses school so that he can stay at home to protect his mum from his father who beat her up at the weekend. Where does one start with disadvantage? Retired teacher.