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What works for poorer pupils

by Lee Elliot Major

Teaching is the triumph of hope over experience. Every year you will greet a new group of pupils for whom you have the highest expectations. And every year you will look back and observe a yawning achievement gap between poorer children and their more privileged peers.[1]

Yet any mention of this is absent from the Government’s framework setting out the skills new teachers in England are expected to master. The assumption seems to be that good teaching will automatically level up society’s uneven playing field. (And woe betide those who use extreme poverty as an excuse for poor results!) These ‘evidence-informed’ guidelines (which cite two major research publications I helped create [2] on this topic go against everything we know. Early career teachers are being readied in education’s deepest trenches blissfully unaware of what they face on the other side.

Social mobility studies show that education by itself struggles to act as the great social leveller. [3] It’s hard to equalise opportunities when middle class parents do whatever it takes to keep their children ahead. Poorer pupils lack what Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital – the traits, know-how and attitudes that enable the middle classes to succeed in school and life.[4] Classrooms suffer from what has been termed the Matthew effect: the tendency for attainment gaps between education’s haves and have-nots to widen.[5] So much of what shapes children’s development comes from outside the school gates.

We don’t have a pedagogy for poverty. But we do know what has worked well for all pupils. Our best hope is to adopt a laser like focus on disadvantage. We can then shine a light on those left behind at school and find ways to ignite their minds.[6]

Know your pupils

The first priority is to better understand the backgrounds of all your pupils.[7]Teachers often only witness fleeting moments of the most troubled pupils’ lives, sometimes scarred by years of instability, neglect and abuse.[8] But with the right support and guidance I believe all parents can support their children’s learning. My latest book, the Good Parent Educator, offers hundreds of simple do-able tips.[9]

As teachers you must engage with parents in a non-judgemental way. Put middle-class presumptions to one side. Low-income parents may not realise that activities at home have huge consequences for progress in the classroom, tending to equate learning with going to school. They aren’t necessarily won over by arguments stressing the long term benefits of education, realisable only in a far-off uncertain future.

Schools can be intimidating places. Does your school have a plan to engage parents from all backgrounds? It should do. Consider home visits at the beginning of term, followed by parent-teacher zoom calls, texts or phone call reminders. Aiding learning in the home can have a huge impact. It might mean supporting quiet time for homework, or helping to quiz children when they are revising, or advising children on planning and reviewing their work. It might be as simple as getting prescription glasses for poor eyesight or improving sleep and diet.

Engage all pupils as learners

The second priority is to engage poorer pupils as learners through genuinely inclusive teaching. Make it your mission to connect with hidden learners and hunt down misconceptions in the darkest corners of your classroom.[10] Ask questions not to affirm your teaching but to provide feedback on your practice: have you explained it well enough? Is there enough understanding to justify moving on?

Carve out time to walk around the class with a clipboard or Ipad to find out where all your students are in their learning. What do they need to move their learning on? Get pupils to ‘pair and share’. Cold call to connect with all your learners. Develop quizzes filled with diagnostic multiple-choice questions.

Our problem is that poorer students are often the ones who go under the radar. Pupils from better-off homes are more likely to be able to manage their own learning, picking up what they need in the classroom. When learning gaps widen for poorer pupils, it becomes an unsurmountable chasm. They can develop a closed mindset to protect their self-esteem, faking interest, pretending to listen, sometimes playing to the crowd.

Finally, watch out that the poorest pupils aren’t more likely to be selected into lower sets or groups. Research suggests this is the case even when they have demonstrated strong academic potential. They suffer the double whammy of missing out on the most stretching, engaging teaching and taking another blow to their sense of self-worth. The more rigid the setting, the more divisive it is.

And be careful with homework: it must complement classroom learning not further exacerbate educational inequalities. It’s a risky teaching strategy at the best of times with no qualified teacher present. Studies have found the achievement gap is larger in classes where homework was given compared with classes without homework.

These are some principles that could have underpinned a teaching standard for social justice – with the aim to understand and consider explicitly in your teaching pupils from poorer backgrounds. For me it’s a glaring omission in the Early Career Framework, a real opportunity lost.

 

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter.

His work is dedicated to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children. He has authored several award winning books including: Social Mobility and Its Enemies and What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching. His latest book The Good Parent Educator summarises education research for parents.

[1] I use the term ‘poorer pupils’ here to suggest a wider notion of disadvantage – not just the crude indicator of whether pupils qualify for free school meals or not.

[2] In 2010, I commissioned and co-authored the Pupil Premium Toolkit. Published by the Sutton Trust charity, this guide, summarising thousands of studies, aimed to help improve the progress of poorer pupils. It eventually became the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which is cited in the Early Career Framework. In 2019, I co-authored What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching which extends our toolkit work. In 2014 I co-authored What Makes Great Teaching, also cited in the Framework. This reviewed over 200 studies on the constituents of good classroom teaching.

[3] In our book Social Mobility and Its Enemies we found no evidence that early years centres, schools or colleges consistently reduce attainment gaps, and life prospects, between the rich and poor. We define social mobility as much more than catapulting a fortunate few into elite universities and prestigious professions, aligned to a broader goal of creating decent jobs and lives for all irrespective of their backgrounds.  The Early Career Framework claims that ‘high-quality teaching has a long-term positive effect on pupils’ life chances, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

[4] Pupils from working class backgrounds do have cultural capital but it is a different capital.

[5] The effect is observed in many aspects of teaching. It is seen among young children learning to read. Pupils who fall behind in reading read less, lagging further behind their peers. Poor reading skills then inhibit their learning in other subjects. It is termed the Matthew Effect after the biblical reference: ‘For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’ (Matthew, XXV). Despite our best efforts, national attainment gaps between poorer pupils and their more privileged peers have widened in recent years.

[6] In his seminal book The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall (2007) revealed the challenge every classroom teacher is up against: 70 per cent of pupils’ time was spent pretending to listen; 80 per cent of the feedback pupils’ received was from their fellow peers; and 80 per cent of this was wrong!

[7] Journalists often ask the question: is Britain still divided by class? I believe it is. It’s just that what constitutes class is always changing. Socio-economic characteristics include the money people earn or the occupations they hold but also inherited wealth, home ownership, savings, education and qualifications. We know that socio-economic background, however defined, shapes our lives profoundly. One of the most insidious aspects of low social mobility is the increasingly polarised class divide we face in modern society. Many of our elites have little idea of the real struggles faced by people they are intended to serve.

[8] It doesn’t take a genius to see that lots of stress in the home will impair learning – something the Early Career Framework is silent on. It urges teachers to know the basics of cognitive load theory. This suggests that our working memory can only juggle a few chunks of information at any one time. We shouldn’t overload children with too much information (something teachers have always known intuitively). Being anxious or having low esteem will impair children’s ability to retain short-term memories and turn these into long-term memories. The same can be said for being hungry or tired.

[9] The Good Parent Educator presents hundreds of tips from reading with children to improving revision strategies to helping children make informed university choices.

[10] Since I was involved in developing the first pupil premium toolkit for teachers in 2010, I’ve been obsessed with the power of effective feedback. I’m convinced that improving feedback is one of the most promising strategies for improving progress and achievement for disadvantaged learners. This is an opportunity to help the pupils who lose out in the system, the ones who get left behind. See: What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching.


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