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There should be no excuses – schools CAN make the difference for FSM pupils

Tom WelchTom Welch, Head of Research and Development SSAT, writes…

Economically disadvantaged students, and particularly white working class boys, are making headlines in the education and national press again.

A ‘double disadvantage’ highlighted in a report commissioned by the Sutton Trust, results in only 29% of this demographic going on to further academic study after GCSEs if they live in a poorer community, compared to 46% who live in more affluent areas.

The New Schools Network (NSN) have produced figures suggesting that disadvantaged students do particularly badly in large schools. The gap between disadvantaged students obtaining 5 A* to Cs including English and maths is 26.1% in the 300 biggest schools in the country, against 20.3% in the 300 smallest.

While correlation certainly does not imply causation, here, the figures are interesting, and perhaps concerning in the light of proposals for ‘titan’ schools.

Another interesting correlation has been pointed out by Future Leaders Trust. The more isolated a school, the lower students’ attainment.

While correlation certainly does not imply causation, here, the figures are interesting, and perhaps concerning in the light of proposals for ‘titan’ schools.

This is particularly true for poorer students: ‘for each additional kilometre between schools, the attainment of free school meals students declines by an average of 1.06 percentage points.’ The report does suggest that ease of collaboration across geographically close schools accounts for some of this difference but, again, it is the poorer students who are hardest hit by the effect.

To exacerbate this picture of the educational haves and have nots, a fourth recent report, from UCL’s Institute of Education, maintains that it is still school grades (and not so-called soft-skills or social connections) that really count, at least where future earning potential is concerned.


Finally, and perhaps most excitingly for the profession, a useful summary of good practice from NFER, commissioned by the DfE, was published this month.

Almost hidden at the end of the key findings, it suggests that ‘variation in disadvantaged pupils’ performance, between otherwise similar schools, [demonstrates] that schools have meaningful scope to make a difference.’

The challenge of white working class boys’ (and girls’) attainment is one that SSAT has been interested in for many years. It is central to our commitment to social justice. With the current rush of headlines around this demographic, a report that we commissioned in 2010 remains worryingly relevant.

schools have meaningful scope to make a difference

The study, Bucking the Trend, was based on a series of free-ranging interviews with white boys, of British origin, eligible for free school meals. Fifty students, from all over England, were interviewed for an hour or more, all of whom had bucked the national trend and had achieved the benchmark of 5 A* to C, at GCSE, including English and maths.

The interviewees were empowered to set the agenda of the interviews within the broad objective of discovering what they thought had enabled them to succeed against the odds.

Research of this sort has its limitations; but, in an ideal world, it should be used to ensure that student voice is included a programme that includes many other sources of data and methods of data collection.

What is striking years later, however, is that many of the insights offered by those 50 students are being corroborated by other published studies. For example:

  • The Bucking the Trend participants suggested that ‘an ethos of high aspirations for everyone in the school’ should be fostered. This is supported, in a complicated overall picture, by UCL’s study.
  • They also suggested that ‘trusted teachers should provide detailed and personalised information, advice and guidance (IAG) to each student, from an early age, with step-by-step support to help them achieve their goals.’ The importance of early careers advice is supported by the Sutton Trust’s recent publication.
  • They suggested ‘encouraging personal development that leads to the acquisition of life skills (is) necessary and fosters independence’. This is upheld in the paper from CRPT.
  • Many spoke of ‘initiative fatigue’ leading to a lack of interest in schemes and interventions that they knew were there to help them – the average number employed being 18 per school in this case. NFER’s report supports this, stating ‘greater success for disadvantaged pupils was associated with schools using fewer strategies…’.


Make the difference

So how can schools make a difference in this seemingly bleak landscape? The focus must be on which strategies we adopt and on how we implement them. The students in Bucking the Trend remind us that they are a rich source of insight and are perhaps under surveyed.

There is a great deal of variation between FSM students – perhaps more than between some FSM and non-FSM students. There is also, of course, national variation. The ‘average’ FSM student, as derived from national amalgamated data, may not exist in any school.

There is a great deal of variation between FSM students – perhaps more than between some FSM and non-FSM students

With this in mind, here are some suggestions:

  1. Get to know your students better in this context. Talk to them in a structured and systematic way. Establish their views on their educational challenges and barriers. Add these to your school’s thinking of the root causes of your socio-economic gaps.
  2. View sources of information based on amalgamated data and robust research on strategies and interventions that fit the needs you have identified. These could include the EEF Toolkit and NFER’s recent study mentioned above. Find and collaborate with other schools that have faced similar challenges. What did they do that has worked? What was not so effective?
  3. Produce an action plan that meets your school’s needs based on stages one and two. Target many small sub-groups within your FSM groups with relevant strategies, and / or fewer strategies that seek a broader cultural change. Keep in mind the concept of initiative fatigue.
  4. Test the efficacy of the strategies that you have put in place as far as you are able to. Data on their efficacy in your school can help you to target resources in subsequent years.
  5. Don’t expect to close the gap overnight, or even in a single academic year (NFER’s report suggests: ‘Schools’ typical pathways to improvement take around three to five years’).

Join us at the SSAT National Conference 2015 – two days that focus on achieving quality and equity for all within education.

SSAT National Conference 2015

BACKGROUND TO SUCCESS – Differences in A-level entries by ethnicity, neighbourhood and gender

Size matters: disadvantaged pupils slip through the net in largest schools

The Future Leaders Trust Impact Report 2015

Dreaming Big: Self-Evaluations, Aspirations, High-Valued Social Networks, and the Private School Earnings Premium

Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils: Articulating success and good practice – NFER

Bucking the Trend

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_w_welch

Read more blogs by Tom.

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