Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)

As educationalists we have an urgent problem. A problem that has always been there, one which we have struggled to address and now this problem threatens to disenfranchise and damage an ever increasing number of children. However effective we believe our present education system is, it fails year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers (EPI, 2019) and more than half a GCSE grade behind per subject (Progress 8 -0.45 to +0.13).

“Over recent years, there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap (at the end of Year 11), … the five-year rolling average now suggests that it would take 560 years to close the gap. … an increase in the gap in 2018 suggest(s) … that we could be at a turning point and that we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)

This is now an urgent issue, the impact of the present pandemic will not be felt equally; our asymmetric society will become more so. As you read this the disadvantaged gap is widening quicker than ever. The inconvenient truth is that the legacy of the pandemic will be far reaching, will extend into the future, and for an increasing number of children the impact will be irreversible. It may well threaten the fabric of society, but it is the fortune of individual children that should motivate our action now and as we emerge into a post-pandemic world.

It will be hard to describe the challenge that our disadvantage children and families now face. In a World that acts explicitly and implicitly against the disadvantaged, the present hiatus in their education and the impact of school closure will have a deep pastoral and educational legacy exacerbated by a deep economic downturn; the level of disadvantage across the country will deepen and grow. The already strong propensity for disadvantaged children to self-deselect will grow significantly.

Of all of the problems that our sector now faces this is the most urgent; we must act now; not in isolation, but as a sector to address the expanding disadvantage gap. Not just because it is right for individual children growing up in uncertain times, but because our very society may depend on it.

“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”


Disadvantaging the disadvantaged | Distance Learning

For all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew Effect)

If we wanted to design a curriculum and a mode of delivery that would disadvantage the disadvantaged then distance learning during closure would be it. Overlay a challenging unemployment and economic climate, the disadvantaged and newly disadvantaged will have even less ability to focus on education; will have even less opportunity and control over their lives.

The following table identifies the reasons for the widening disadvantaged gap through the lens of distance learning during the pandemic, … something that is also true during normal times.

During the time of closure there will be increasing numbers of children who are curriculum negative (accumulating disadvantage) and are falling behind; a group that will expand over time. At the same time there will also be curriculum and learning positive pupils (accumulating advantage), those who thrive in the home, making greater progress than if they had to contend with the noise of school. The result is a stretch in present attainment profile that is now widening the disadvantaged gap and significantly growing the number of children who will have delayed attainment; from those who have little, more will be taken away.

Again the impact of this will not be felt equally across schools and academies, those serving high disadvantage in highly deprived areas will have the greatest challenge; where the full impact of the pandemic and economic downturn will play out. It is in these areas and schools that we will need to work the hardest to maintain a child’s focus on education, secure attainment mobility and give them the opportunities to be be more than they thought they could be.


The impact of Distance Learning for disadvantaged (and other) children

The following chart identifies the impact of poor versus highly effective teaching on an average student and a disadvantaged student. Whilst this is true when children are in school it is also true, probably more so, when children are distance learning. This should focus us to view distance learning through the eyes of the disadvantaged learner, taking into account the barriers identified above and the suggested criteria for distance learning below.

Sutton Trust, 2011

If we are in any doubt that attendance is linked to progress, then the following graph identifies the Progress 8 score achieved by children whose attendance fall below 90% and where attendance is between 90-95% for disadvantaged (blue) and non-disadvantaged (grey). Again the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged reduces progress 8 by a further 0.36 compared to non-disadvantaged for children with less than 90% attendance. (sample data, not national data)

We will soon have the vast majority of children with attendance <90% for this academic year, but as with the pandemic, the impact is never felt equally across society; the asymmetry will deepen, the disadvantaged (and others) will fall further, loosing their foothold in education.


So what? how do we tackle this enormous challenge?

This is a question for the sector and it will need to evolve over time. The following is not exhaustive, but is a starter for 10, a plan for action based on some key periods of time:

During the pandemic | Now

  • Feed the disadvantaged and vulnerable children; prioritise the feeding of families during the pandemic, working with community groups to meet this basic need.
  • Keep disadvantaged and vulnerable children safe; do everything we can to keep children safe through the pandemic, maintaining contact and support to build their sense of psychological safety.
  • Get disadvantaged online (now and in the long term); we need to do more to tackle the digital divide, now more than ever with the current jump in technology and on-line learning.
  • Create effective Distance learning through the eyes of disadvantaged children through the pandemic; based on the following principles:
    1. Accessible: High clarity, specific instructions, dependable in format, encourages routine. – limit all barriers to accessing and completing learning.
    2. Sequenced: Ordered and progressive, does not assume high levels of inference or cultural context. – random content in the wrong order does not support learning and progression.
    3. Proportionate amount: Is achievable, meaningful, and encourages completion – too much work will encourage opt-out.
    4. Engaging and compelling: Build in hooks and engaging tasks that encourage return and continuation of learning. – reducing disadvantaged propensity to self-deselect.
    5. Human interaction: The more we can give a sense of human interaction and narrative with the more likely it will generate motivation.
    6. Validation and feedback: Encourage further working by validating and acknowledging completed work.
  • Expect and prepare for the reduced quality and coherence of distance learning as fatigue sets in and where there is a lack of long term vision for distance learning; consider key leveraging learning, lessons, resourcing that are focused on the most important key concepts and learning for the next phase of education.
  • Make this everyone’s challenge; unswerving focus and high ambition for disadvantaged children; lifting the ceiling of what we believe is possible; shifting culture and ambition will underpin all efforts to address this challenge; start now, build momentum with colleagues now – share the challenge, call for innovation.
  • Convert and recruit all Raising Standards Leaders to the cause; to focus entirely on the attainment and progress of disadvantaged children in every year group; championing and building the plan through others.
  • Build on-line and deliver Professional Development sessions during closure that focus on:
    • “Teaching through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”
    • “Leading through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”

Preparing to re-join the new normal | Next and in addition to the above

  • Review deeply the curriculum:
    • Map clearly what has been lost, not covered … assume universal coverage is low.
    • Debate then define the core spine of the curriculum; that which is now the key concepts, knowledge and skills that are most leveraging for the future.
    • Look to remove noise out of the curriculum; more than ever we need to take the shortest route to learning.
  • Plan how you will assess each child, when we re-join, to understand that key curricular and learning gaps; not to allocate a number to each child, but to understand the needs of each learner to inform the curriculum, planning and teaching.
  • Maximise and plan for the greater use of technology; exploit the recent jump in on-line learning – sift out the good and package it to supplement the curriculum for disadvantaged learners over time.
  • Plan for the deeper involvement and collaboration with families as co-educators of children. Plan how this can be directed to add resource to closing the attainment gaps.

Post-pandemic world | Academic Year 2020 – 2021

  • Do not drop disadvantaged children down sets.
  • Do give disadvantaged children the very best teachers and teaching, promoting disadvantaged up sets to get to the best teacher.
  • Invest deeply in quality teaching; the greatest determinant on disadvantage progress, ensure all professional development activity improves the quality of teaching. Be highly specific on the key spine of the curriculum, direct instruction, modelling, deliberate practice, interleaving, review, revisit. Sequence curriculum to have a strong narrative and a level of purpose that motivates and makes learning irresistible.
  • Teach disadvantaged more; this is about equity not equality. Consider extending the school day and holidays to address the widening gap.
  • Get every disadvantaged child on-line and with a suitable device; reduce competition for the device within the home. Direct learners to highly specific learning on the core spine of learning that will be most leveraging for closing the gap.
  • Do not just focus on the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge – without context, understanding, meaning and purpose this will not stick in the long term, to support understanding of the world, so that disadvantaged children have self agency in childhood and adulthood.

Long term change to education

  • We need to judge the quality of provision through those that most need it and keep disadvantaged attainment (and progress) as a defining measure of the quality of the provision. Measuring an academies ability to secure attainment mobility over time. Rewarding those who genuinely reverse disadvantage.
  • Do not create a national assessment and examination structure in 2021 that only serves to measure the impact of the pandemic and the deep inequalities in this country.
  • Adapt the present framework to address the deep needs of disadvantaged children in a post-pandemic world; one that will be harder not easier for disadvantaged children

“The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.” (McKinsey, March 2020, a quote from 11 years ago during the global financial crisis)

Whilst there are many things that are uncertain in a post-pandemic world, we already know that the impact of the pandemic and the economic downturn will hit those who will be least able to cope. We need to act now; if not now, when, if not you, who?


Dr Daniel Nicholls

April 2020

Leading in extraordinary times | paradigm shifting

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” (C.S. Lewis)

We are coping, working and leading in extraordinary times. We are in the midst of a high magnitude, low frequency event; a global pandemic that has significantly shunted and disrupted life as we know it. An event that is more disruptive to education than any other in our living (working) memory. Considering how we lead in this pandemic era and in a post pandemic world provides a framework for us to seize opportunities and to imagine how education could be. (the pandemic, at the very least, demonstrates that anything is possible).

Under times of stress we are conditioned to focus on surviving and coping; our horizon is near, our perspective is narrow. Whilst this is a necessary phase of crisis management if we step back and look into the future we can start to take control, rationalise and address the challenges and prepare to exploit the opportunities that this hiatus to normal provides, so that we increase the chance of an extraordinary destiny.

Hiatus: a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity.

If we name it, perhaps we can manage it. … and as educators we must manage it; children and communities rely on us to make sense of this hiatus and to lead beyond it, into a post pandemic world. Indeed the way schools have responded to the pandemic has elevated their role as a civic actor; there has never been a greater opportunity to rethink, evolve and establish an education system, led by and developed by our sector.


Situational Awareness

The following diagram provides a representation of the pre-pandemic phase, the pandemic and the post pandemic world; providing a framework for discussion and greater situational awareness.

The framework identifies how we moved from sensing the change that might be caused by the pandemic to the reality of the high magnitude event; an external shunt to the system that forced educators into crisis management. The traumatic change, in mid-March, closed schools across the country with educators leading from one hour to the next. This then shifted to a period of stabilisation, in the present pandemic era. A new normal, characterised by distance learning under lock-down.

At some point in the future, in a post pandemic future, we will prepare to re-join normal. This is where educators will need to show strong and deliberate leadership that addresses, among other issues, significant challenges related to societal and cultural cohesion and the urgent need to address the hiatus in the education of disadvantaged children as well as key year groups, 5, 10 and 12. The flip side is a significant opportunity, using this hiatus in normal to trigger a new paradigm; perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to understand how education could be. A release from our organisational (sector) blindness.


“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” Marianne Williamson


Paradigm shifting | our system has been externally shunted

As humans we live by accepted norms; cultural, societal and educational; taken together these create the present paradigm; one which has been thrown into chaos. How we see the world and perhaps what is possible has shifted..

Paradigm shift: a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely. 

The following diagram, which represents the same time span as above, identifies the former paradigm, the new temporary paradigm during the present pandemic era and the new paradigm that will establish in the post-pandemic world.

Whilst we have shifted into the pandemic era we necessarily play a finite game where the immediacy of the situation necessitates coping, supporting and crisis management. As we stabilise in the pandemic era we need to extend our time horizon and think with a more infinite mindset necessary to plan for and realise what we can build as the next educational paradigm. (influenced by Sinek, 2020)

This requires us as a sector and educationalists to have a purposeful awareness of the opportunities that can shape education in the new world. This requires us to seed and occupy an Innovation space, created and stimulated by the hiatus and the paradigm shift forced by the global pandemic… a unique opportunity to seize.


Our challenge | pandemic, post pandemic and beyond

The following is some initial thinking in broad terms (and far from exhaustive) of the challenges and opportunities we have a sector in these three phases…

Within the pandemic era

  • Secure provision, defined by distance learning, that is sequenced, efficient, consistent and accessible and one that has (at least a sense of) human interaction and narrative. To maintain our curriculum, learning and a sense of normality to our children.
  • Understand the impact of distance learning on disadvantaged children; an urgent concern, one that could have an irreversible legacy. (if there was ever a strategy to further disadvantage disadvantaged children then distance learning would be it.)
  • Supporting and maintaining societal cohesion; acting with community agencies to support families in these challenging times.
  • Supporting and maintaining contact with our most vulnerable children and families and those that become so.

Preparing for a post-pandemic world

  • Planning and preparing for children to re-join their education. A pastoral and curricular challenge.
  • Planning specifically to rationalise and empower children, particularly those in Years 5, 10 and 12 to experience a curriculum and assessment structure that does not compound the hiatus in their education.
  • Planning specifically to support disadvantaged children; deliberately and rigorously seeking to tackle the growing disadvantaged gap, which will be exasperated, not supported by distance learning; a challenge that will be measured in years not months.

Paradigm shifting into a new education era

  • Understanding what we need from the national assessment and examination structure. Not just for Year 5, 10 and 12 in 2021 (whose gap and random curriculum coverage is already undermining the fairness of 2021 exams and assessment, particularly if you are disadvantaged), but in the long term. There has never been a better opportunity to rationalise this structure and understand how we could better prepare all children for adulthood and to be economically and personally successful.
  • Building on the role of schools, academies and Trusts as community partners; how far does this pandemic re-shape and re-articulate the position of schools and Trusts at the heart of their communities?
  • Capitalising on the role of parents and families as co-partners in educating their children; building on the deep investments being made by parents/carers in their child’s education.
  • Re-imagining the role of technology in supporting learning in and beyond school. We are already seeing a significant jump in the use of technology; a foothold in the virtual space that will not recede.
  • Deeply considering and understanding the key/leveraging curricular elements that enable children to transition to adulthood (or secondary, or Post-16); something that is required in the planning of Year 5, 10 and 12 , 2020-21 curriculum.
  • Exploiting the depth of altruism and support between Trusts and the wider sector evident through this crisis, to build a self-supporting, self-improving system.
  • The future of school inspection in a post-pandemic world; and the opposite opportunity to build sector-led quality assurance, based around a greater understanding of what matters. What does education look like with limited performance tables and a hiatus in curriculum continuity?

“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.” Og Mandino


Into the Innovation Space | Don’t go into hibernation

So from adversity may come opportunity, perhaps one that is rich enough to bring significant good from the present struggle. One that may transform education and support our children to thrive in this uncertain world.

So go into the innovation space, avoid hibernation and dare to dream of an education system at the heart of the community, working in deep partnerships and focusing on the right things for our children and the future generations.

This hiatus may well be the jolt to the system that allows educationalists and the sector to create a new paradigm; one that will better serve our young people… but only if we seek it.


Dr Daniel Nicholls

29 March 2020