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3 July 2020
By Zoe Enser

Equity in the English Classroom

It is currently unlikely that you will be able to open a newspaper or switch on the television without hearing about ‘vulnerable’ pupils and the issues faced by the disadvantaged at this moment in time. A recent report from The Children’s Commissioner indicates that:

"In 2019, 26.5% (144,000) of pupils in state-funded schools at the end of key stage 4 were disadvantaged. Of these pupils, just a quarter achieved English and Maths at grades 9-5, compared to half of non-disadvantaged pupils. The disadvantage gap (as measured by the disadvantage gap index) was 3.70 in 2019 – 9% lower than in 2011, when it was 4.07. But it has risen slightly for the second year in a row, from 3.66 to 3.68 in 2017-18 and from 3.68 to 3.70 in 2018-19"

These figures are stark and there can be no denying that some students face significant barriers to achieving the academic success which they are all entitled to.

Ensuring we are meeting the needs of the most vulnerable can be difficult though, especially as this is often based on the Pupil Premium criteria, a blunt tool, relying on the self-reporting of financial disadvantage and discounting many other areas of disadvantage our students face. Families who may have similar barriers to those who meet the PP criteria find themselves falling slightly wide of the mark or are unsure how to highlight their needs to get the support available to them.

Therefore, the number of pupils who may be facing difficulties may already have been much broader than those we were able to identify on a list. The financial situation which the Covid 19 crises has created will most certainly have exacerbated the situation and means many others could be facing serious issues such as this for the first time.

The good news though is that there is a lot which schools can do to mitigate for some of the impact of disadvantage. In many cases there is a lot schools are already doing for those students, with pupil premium strategies, extensive pastoral care and additional academic support. Some schools are providing meals, clothing, resources, including more expensive items such as laptops, in order to ensure that both the basic needs of their students and their academic requirements can be met.

There are also many things which we can do for our students in our classrooms on a day to day basis. It doesn’t take a significant change in our practice to make a difference and often the things which have proven successful for our most disadvantaged students can have a positive impact for all of our students.

1. The Curriculum

By ensuring that we have a curriculum which has the highest aspirations for all, we can ensure that all of our students will have access to the knowledge and processes which can equip them for the next phases of their learning, and for life. A well-designed curriculum will be carefully sequenced to ensure that concepts are developed over time and knowledge is woven together into strong and secure schemas which support the development of increasingly complex ideas.

Questions to Ask:

  • Do all students have the access to the same concepts in the curriculum regardless of their prior ability or grouping? Sometimes well-intentioned adaptations to the curriculum might mean that challenge and access to some of the more complex texts, themes and topics have been reduced. We want to ensure equity in our provision.
  • How are students accessing the curriculum? If there are issues with Literacy how is this being addressed? Are there interventions which ensure students have the opportunities to read and write with fluency and understanding?
  • How are you supporting the development of vocabulary and oracy? This, we know, has a significant impact on the achievement of students who may not have the same opportunities to develop these at home, as identified by the Institute for Effective Education.

2. High Expectations for All

This links directly back to our curriculum, but importantly, having an unerring belief that all students can achieve, is essential. Students need to see that there is a real belief in what they can achieve. They need to have access to high quality examples and given opportunities to be really challenged and to push themselves to achieve more.

This also includes high expectations for learning behaviours, including supporting students to complete work to the highest standard. It is important we are not accepting less from students based on certain characteristics and that we continue to support them to work independently beyond the classroom. Be explicit and consistent with these expectations and look at ways to embed this across your team and school.

Celebrating success is important too, so make praise part of the process when students succeed in achieving the highest of those expectations.

Questions to Ask:

  • What does the work of some of your disadvantaged student look like? Can you identify any difference from their peers?
  • What groups are these students in? Are they all being encouraged to work as hard as possible regardless of the group or the issues they face?
  • What support do they need to reach for these expectations? Are they able to access the highest quality work? Are they supported in their home learning, including with resources when need be?

3. Pedagogical Choices

As with your curriculum choices there are many ways you can approach the ‘how’ of our teaching with the approaches we decide to take. There is significant evidence though to suggest that certain approaches in our classroom will benefit not only our disadvantaged pupils but all students. So, for example, approaches to instruction with break concepts into small steps and stages, the modelling of processes and the use of retrieval practice as a learning tool, are all approaches which are supported by strong evidence to indicate they lead to good outcomes for students. We need to ensure we can utilize these approaches in our classrooms where we can, even if we don’t always use them in the same way.

Questions to Ask:

  • What are the common approaches to teaching complex ideas in your team?
  • How do you ensure that pupils have retained this information?
  • How do you use retrieval to make links between prior and new learning?
  • What opportunities do the students have to ‘see’ the reading or writing process?

4. Metacognition: Self-regulation, Self-efficacy and Motivation

One strategy which often shows the highest impact for students who are facing disadvantages is the teaching of metacognitive skills. Encouraging students to identify the strategies they have to approach a task, select the most appropriate one to tackle it, knowing they have the knowledge available to succeed and being able to take control of their own learning, will lead to higher levels of motivation and achievement.

Modelling reading strategies, breaking down writing tasks and encouraging students to reflect on their learning in English can have a positive impact on student performance.

Whilst metacognition is best taught within subject domains; as students develop schemas around their learning, they will apply these ideas to new situations and ideas. This is essential for when students are applying their knowledge to the tasks on an exam paper at the end of Year 11 or Year 13. 

Questions to Ask:

  • When we are teaching reading and writing, do we explicitly model the thinking processes which take place around this, demonstrating the strategies we employ and choices we are making?
  • How are the tasks we give to students and the questions we ask them, encouraging them to think metacognitively about their learning? For example, simply getting them to reflect on choices they have made on a piece of writing can lead to deeper reflection and understanding for their later work.
  • How do we scaffold metacognitive processes when they are working independently, especially on revision tasks where they may need to make choice around topics or ideas, they find more difficult? Do we ensure that students know what this means?

Next Steps for our Most Vulnerable Students in Kent

In the coming months we will continue to work alongside you in order to do all we can to ensure that our most vulnerable students are supported in the best possible ways. However, if we begin by focusing on these key elements, all students will be in a stronger position to succeed.

The Education People are currently developing a range of ways to support school leaders and teachers in implementing the most effective strategies for these learners within their settings. If you would like more details about how we can do this or to discuss any of these ideas further with me, send an email to zoe.enser@theeducationpeople.org