18 Nov 2021
It’s always exciting to see a new book placing emphasis on addressing the educational impacts of socio-economic disadvantage. Jean Gross’s Reaching the Unseen Children seeks to support teachers across all settings to work together do just this by identifying the key strategies that are likely to improve disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes.
However, this isn’t a book that sets out to cover all aspects of disadvantage. Instead, it specifically aims to examine the issues experienced by white working-class boys, a group that is well-known for its concerning academic underperform over several years but that hasn’t necessarily been the key focus of some of policy conversations.
The challenge here of course is the same as when we talk about any groups in education: they are not homogenous. The issues white working-class boys experience are as varied and disparate as any other, so one size is unlikely to fit all. So I approached the book with caution. “Practical strategies for closing stubborn attainment gaps in disadvantaged groups” felt like a bit of an educational holy grail.
I needn’t have worried. Throughout, Gross highlights the importance of understanding individuals, avoiding assumptions about ‘the group’ and working with the community. At every turn, she carefully identifies the issues and then highlights the areas that need to be at the fore of any strategy to improve educational achievement: early-years interventions, language and vocabulary acquisition, mathematics and social and emotional development.
Perhaps most importantly though, Reaching the Unseen Children’s overwhelming emphasis is on the belief that these pupils can really achieve. Reading it is a constant reminder to avoid placing limitations on what can be achieved, or becoming overwhelmed by factors beyond our control. If we can’t fix all of the issues our students face, Gross’s many case studies and examples illustrate where schools have and can make a difference.
Of particular interest in this regard is the chapter on what is actually unlikely to help. Gross argues that many of the more popular interventions (for example, those focused on ‘raising aspirations’) are either completely rooted in myth or at best based on a mixed evidence base that should mean they come with a health warning.
Some will find their cherished notions challenged when Gross takes on smaller class sizes, ability setting and the allocation of teaching assistants. But the same readers are likely to find the evidence base she presents – largely Education Endowment Foundation reviews – equally controversial.
The strategies themselves offer no real surprises for those who are well versed in this area. Nor are there any silver bullets; just good, thoughtful practice and an awareness of what seems to work. The strongest factor in improving educational outcomes comes back to good-quality day-to-day teaching. But that’s easier said than done, and Gross carefully unpicks what this looks like in classrooms and across the curriculum, with particular attention to the teaching of language, the use of early interventions and approaches to the explicit teaching of vocabulary and numeracy.
There are also key lessons from cognitive science, such as making use of retrieval and interleaving, as well as developing self-efficacy and building relationships with parents. A whole chapter devoted to the ‘maths gap’ is a welcome addition to the usual focus on vocabulary and literacy. Unfortunately, in an attempt to cover so much ground, it sometimes feels like Gross has sacrificed some depth and detail.
Ultimately though, this book offers a combination of research, practical tips for teachers and schools across phases, and clear reminders that there is much more to learning than simply sharing information. The relationships we build with our students, how they perceive themselves as learners, and how we teach and nurture their belief in what they can achieve are all afforded the same importance as retrieval and memory.
In that sense, Reaching the Unseen Children will not only help teachers to support white working-class boys to achieve, but all learners regardless of background. And that will always be welcome.