Addressing educational disadvantage: from strategy to the classroom

Published: 10 October 2022
Marc Rowland explores addressing educational disadvantage from strategy to the classroom, in this article from Unity Research School.

Schools must update their Pupil Premium strategy statements by 31 December 2022, as per the Department for Education guidance. The guidance was updated in spring 2022 – so do refer to this.

The worked examples on the DfE website should also support planning and revisions. They can here found here. In my experience, schools that work with the helpful guidance and examples have produced some of the most effective strategies.

Section B of the template should be used to evaluate the progress being made in achieving long term plans. Wilbury Primary School in Enfield, Durrington High School in West Sussex are examples of good practice and highlight the importance of dispassionate, ongoing evaluation.

Here are some steps to consider as we revise and refine our long-term strategies.

1 ‑7: School culture, expectations,…

1Remove the deficit discourse around disadvantage and its impact on learning and participation in school life. Disadvantaged pupils and their families are not a problem to be resolved. They are our school community, and held in high regard. Work in partnership to ensure everyone feels they belong, in all aspects of school life. Be mindful of the risk of a ​school within a school’: where school life works for the vast majority of pupils, but a small number are on the margins.

2Secure a school-wide understanding of how disadvantage impacts on pupils’ learning and broader experiences in school. See school life through the lens of disadvantaged pupils and their families. This is important, irrespective of the numbers of disadvantaged pupils in the school.

3Secure a school-wide understanding of the schools’ main priorities for addressing disadvantage – and how those priorities present across the curriculum and in wider school life.

4Focus on issues that are within the schools’ gift. Focus on issues that are controllable. Limit priorities to those that are most preventing pupils from thriving in the classroom and in wider school life. 

5.Coherence and credibility are key to effective implementation in the classroom. Professional development for staff – in academic and pastoral roles – should centre on helping staff to help disadvantaged pupils to thrive in school.

6Ensure that high quality, experienced, expert staff are working equitably with disadvantaged pupils, especially those that are lower current attainers. Recruitment, retention, and development of staff are fundamental to an effective strategy. This requires a long-term view, with some schools adopting a ​pipeline’ approach to teacher recruitment and putting in place high quality professional development programmes for all staff, including teaching assistants, teachers of all levels of experience, middle and senior leaders. The same applies to staff in pastoral roles.

7Ensure, across school, that there is a clear, collective understanding
of (and a consistent language lexicon for)

-High expectations

- High quality teaching

- Inclusivity


8 – 15: Assessment

8. Use research evidence to inform decision making and challenge plans during planning and implementation. Link exploration of evidence to issues arising from a rigorous assessment of needs. Evidence should inform how schools respond to pupil need in the classroom and in wider school life. A research informed approach, without a rigorous assessment of need may take schools in the wrong direction. Planning and implementation should be firmly embedded in realities of an individual school context.

9Assessment, not assumptions are at the heart of an effective approach. Assessment of need is not something that is only done before a strategy is implemented. It is a critical ingredient of an effective strategy. Start with the needs of the individual pupils, and build a strategy around emerging themes and common issues. Avoid looking for themes to address with a ready-made solution. Pupil need, not labels should inform all decision making. Many pupils in our schools will be experiencing disadvantage that are not eligible for the Pupil Premium. Schools are best placed to determine how disadvantage impacts on pupils in their local communities.

The impact of disadvantage on learning is a process, not an event. Neither is it static. Of course, families may not be significantly economically disadvantaged but may be exceptionally stretched / time poor… or be impacted by factors outside of their control. Key questions to consider:

1) How does disadvantage impact on pupils’ learning (in the individual school context).

2) What are the *controllable* factors impacting on disadvantaged pupils’ learning.

3) What factors are MOST preventing disadvantaged pupils from thriving in the classroom and in wider school life?


10. Rigorous assessment promotes early intervention and ongoing support for pupils. Early intervention, rooted in pupil need, that enables pupils to thrive in the classroom can prevent curriculum narrowing and a reactive approach.

11. Respond to assessment of need within teaching and learning, as well as interventions. Identifying issues such as pupils’ reading age should elicit a response across the curriculum, not just through reading interventions and whole school reading programmes.

12. Build knowledge of high quality practice based on effective processes and implementation of evidence informed strategies. How to do things matters.

13. Ensure that curriculum, subject, and pastoral leaders are heavily involved in the planning and implementation of the school’s disadvantage strategy as early as possible. Staff in these roles are fundamental to long term success. Ensure expertise is well utilised.

14. Ensure that the appropriate administrative staff are involved in the planning and implementation stages. Again, these staff are fundamental to long term success.

15Streamline approaches by working with external expert partners – both for academic and pastoral approaches. Avoid too many priorities.

16 – 22: Priorities

16Build staff expertise around high priority themes to help pupils to be better learners.

MR Blog pic 1

17. Build partnership and harness local expertise. Supplement teacher expertise. Look for area-based solutions for:

  • Curriculum enrichment: museums, theatre, music 
  • Proactive physical and mental health support through expert partners.
  • Academic support: Tuition programmes
  • School development through partnership: LAs, Research Schools, Hubs, other school improvement providers. Also, within and across Multi Academy Trusts and with other partners – for teacher expertise, coaching, peer review and dispassionate quality assurance.

18Improve reading standards. Pupils will read with the breadth, depth and frequency they need to thrive in the classroom if they become strong readers. Our efforts to address disadvantage pivot on how well pupils develop their reading comprehension skills.

19. Poverty proofing is a key ingredient of inclusive schools where disadvantaged pupils are thriving: This should cover both the formal and informal curriculum, as well as uniform, equipment and other resources.

20. Access to the curriculum is not dependent on family resources or income – e.g. field studies in Geography.

21. Pupils should be supported to have good friends and have meaningful interactions with peers across socio economic groups.

22. Pupils should have excellent careers education and be involved in meaningful enrichment opportunities. High quality careers education should not rely on personal networks or social capital. Pupils should play a strong role in wider school – and have strong leadership roles. This can be done through early (and ongoing) involvement in activities that promote self-efficacy and belonging. Being involved in teams (not just sport) and student councils that promote pupil voice on a range of issues can help pupils to feel confident and empowered. Belonging and a sense of place at school should go beyond the classroom.

23. Schools are enhanced and enriched through inclusivity. Inclusion improves schools. It enhances our values and our practices.

24 – 25: Evaluation

24. Governors should play a key role in rigorous, dispassionate impact evaluation. Decouple impact evaluation from accountability. Evaluation is understanding whether strategies are working, not proving that they are. Evaluation frameworks should be put in place at the start of implementation, not done retrospectively.

25. Adopt evidence informed approaches to implementation, remembering that the practitioner is the intervention. The EEF guidance resources are the gold standard for this. Again, an implementation plans should be rooted firmly in and individual schools’ context.

The evaluating your Pupil Premium strategy’ blog may also help.

Marc Rowland, Unity Research School

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