Recoginising the hurdles some children face will help you target your teaching to improve outcomes

Last December, the educational charity, the Sutton Trust found that two-thirds of academy chains perform below average on key measures of attainment for disadvantaged young people (those entitled to the pupil premium). Yet improving their educational achievement was the original reason why academies were set up. So what’s going wrong?

A picture of a school student carrying a lunch tray

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Eating and sleeping enough are key to successful learning, but for many students, these simple things are a struggle

The Sutton Trust’s five-year analysis highlights how much inconsistency there is between chains. Each year the same small group do well for disadvantaged pupils, and the same group remain at the bottom of the table.

The Sutton Trust’s five-year analysis highlights how much inconsistency there is between chains. Each year the same small group do well for disadvantaged pupils, and the same group remain at the bottom of the table (bit.ly/2BcfJoZ)

‘We continue to find it perplexing that the government has done so little to explore the methods of these successful chains and to distil learning to support others,’ comments report author Becky Francis, director of the UCL Institute of Education. She recommends sharing good practice more widely.

Coping with responsibilities and finding time to study

Disadvantaged students can face particular difficulties at all schools. But what can teachers do to help? Judith Peel, a chemistry teacher at Itchen Sixth Form College in Southampton, says her students can struggle with responsibilities. ‘One student who was bright enough to do medicine didn’t get the top grades. She was the eldest of five and looked after younger siblings, as well as working 20-plus hours a week. Her parents didn’t understand the amount of time she needed to spend on her studies to get the top grades.’

Another issue can be finding somewhere to study. ‘Poorer students are more likely to have a shared room or even no room,’ Judith adds. ‘I’ve had a student who always lost his homework or coursework. It turned out he was sleeping on the sofa in the front room and had nowhere to keep his work.’

‘Some pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have someone to aspire to, or someone who has an aspiration for them,’ comments Caroline Adams, a science teacher and careers leader at St Richard’s Catholic College, Bexhill-on-Sea. ‘As their parents/carers have not had an academic background themselves, the pupils sometimes don’t see why they should either. There is also the lack of support at home, as some parents just don’t understand the subject, in particular science, so that can cause problems with engaging in the subject.’

Positive role models

‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ says Matt Lent, CEO of the charity Future First. Research shows that nearly half of pupils from the poorest backgrounds (on free school meals) don’t know anyone in a job they would like to do. This affects young people’s perception of their own ability, their expectations of future success and the extent to which they value their schoolwork, he explains. The result is that only one in eight children from a low-income background is likely to become a high earner as an adult.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ says Matt Lent, CEO of the charity Future First. Research shows that nearly half of pupils from the poorest backgrounds (on free school meals) don’t know anyone in a job they would like to do (bit.ly/2Bcg37b). This affects young people’s perception of their own ability, their expectations of future success and the extent to which they value their schoolwork, he explains. The result is that only one in eight children from a low-income background is likely to become a high earner as an adult.

84% of young people say meeting alumni made them realise that ‘people like me’ can be successful

Meeting former students helps to change this, says Matt. Future First has supported more than 1100 state secondary schools and colleges to build networks of former students.

The effects are remarkable: 84% of young people say meeting alumni made them realise that ‘people like me’ can be successful; 82% commit to working harder after meeting former students; and 100% of teachers report that relatable working role models raised students’ motivation to learn.

Caroline Adams’ college works with an alumni network. ‘It’s an amazing resource as the pupils love to hear from people that have been in the classrooms they have been in. We are also using the network to help the pupils see the relevance of some subjects to future careers.

’For maths week, we are hoping to get a former pupil who now works for Rolls Royce to come and speak about the importance of maths in his career,’ she continues. ’I think the alumni network is important for all subjects, not just science, as it can help the pupils realise the relevance of what they are doing in school to their possible future careers/options.’

What you can do

  • Treat students equally; disadvantaged students can perform to the same standard as their advantaged counterparts and progress to university.
  • Make sure students are signed up to get free meals. Students don’t go hungry, while schools receive extra funding which can be used to further help pupils.
  • Encourage all students to get enough sleep. Disadvantaged students may have more complicated sleeping or home arrangements, but students who are tired find it harder to study.
  • Offer counselling. If funding is available, look to external counsellors. Otherwise, can in-house staff be trained to address the relevant issues?
  • Set up mentoring for students and teachers. Students can learn from their peers how to handle difficult situations and make the most of their schooling. Teachers can discuss students or situations that need attention or special care.
  • Identify students who would benefit from more help either in groups, perhaps in breakfast or homework clubs, or breaktime sessions with snacks as added incentives; or one-on-one.
  • Provide careers talks and opportunities to meet positive role models; develop alumni networks (with Future First’s help).