Why we need to stop talking about disadvantage (and what we should talk about instead)

Lee Elliot Major explains why a change of language could be crucial in shaping the conversation around poverty and other barriers to success

Lee Elliot Major explains why a change of language could be crucial in shaping the conversation around poverty and other barriers to success

11 Nov 2023, 5:00

In my latest book Equity in Education, written with teacher Emily Briant, we argue for a new language to replace words that I’ve been using all my professional life. I’ve spent decades working to address the stark divides that scar our education system. But I now believe the terms we use to define these efforts label and harm the very children we hope to help.

Our use of the word ‘equity’ signals the need to provide additional support for pupils who need it most, amid increasing societal divides outside the school gates. Our book focuses on tackling the multitude of cultural and material barriers children face inside and outside the classroom. It complements other important inclusion work on race, ethnicity, gender and other characteristics of pupils.

Our reason for replacing the term ‘disadvantaged pupils’ with ‘children from under-resourced backgrounds’ is to avoid the trap of deficit thinking. The deficit approach frames certain children as somehow inferior, in need of conversion (or education) to fit the middle-class norms of the classroom. It places more value on certain roles in society.

My own life story is an example of this narrative: Having lived alone as a teenager and once served as a bin-man, I have subsequently become the country’s first professor of social mobility. I may well have become a middle-class clone, but my story should not be used to denigrate the important job that bin-men do.

The term ‘disadvantaged pupil’ focuses our minds on individuals, when facing hardship is about the circumstances individuals find themselves in. In the world of deficit thinking, education efforts feel like a very one-sided negotiation: we want you to come into our world, change who you are, fit into our culture, and play by our (unwritten) rules.

We can of course use clearly defined words to describe disadvantage when reporting differences across pupil populations. The problem comes when these slip into generalisations applied to individual pupils in the classroom.

We must avoid the trap of deficit thinking

This brings us to another problem with terming a child as ‘disadvantaged’: it suggests a binary classification between who is or who is not ‘advantaged’ that can lead us into superficial two-dimensional thinking. For example, pupil premium funding is allocated to schools based on whether children qualify for free school meals, and studies find that teachers are prone to unconscious biases that limit pupils labelled in this way.

Instead, ‘under-resourced’ highlights the range of assets that some children may miss out on – not just wealth and money but the cultural and educational resources provided by parents and their social networks, as well as basics like food, healthcare and clothing. Indeed, the term resonates with the concept of cultural capital as it was first developed by French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu.

But what finally convinced me of the need for new language was the views of young people themselves. You may not be surprised to learn that they don’t want to be defined as ‘disadvantaged’.

Not everyone is convinced. Some suggest our argument is a ‘middle-class sidestep’ rather than ‘working-class straight talking’ or that ‘softening’ the way we describe disadvantage stops people feeling uncomfortable with the reality.

All I can say is that I see things differently now. I think we need new approaches and words to level the education playing field. That includes also cutting out hackneyed phrases like ‘realising children’s potential’, which assumes we know what a young person’s future capabilities might be or that they are somehow fixed. Emily and I talk about parent partnerships rather than parental engagement – an emphasis on making decisions with families, not for them. And we don’t posit families but ourselves as the ones who are ‘hard to reach’.

This won’t be the last word on this topic. Indeed, there is likely a wealth of common words and phrases in schools and academia that remains to be challenged. We can disagree on whether to change them and what to replace them with, but just having the conversation will help ensure the language of well-meaning professionals like me doesn’t blindly damage the very cause we deploy it in aid of.

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