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#Lightbulb Moment 8 - Part 2 of “How serious are you about tackling disadvantage in your school?”



This is a busy time for all schools as we finish SATS, GCSEs and A Level cycles. We will have been working on timetables for next academic year and fretting about what staffing issues we may have and what courses we will be able to run.


Middle leaders will be looking at who is in which group, and thinking about setting or the mix of learners in terms of ability or behaviour – whichever drives the placing of learners into classes within your organisation.


But can I please ask you to take a moment and look at things in a more granular way if you are serious about addressing the issues of lack of ambition and opportunity for some of our most disadvantaged learners, in particular pupil premium students?


Once you have had initial conversations about where to place children, do they then go back and look closely at the mix within classes and where you are placing your pupil premium learners? Are they tending to be placed within lower sets/classes? How many pupil premium learners are in your top sets? If the pupil premium learners are tending to be placed within middle/lower sets can you really justify why this is? How do we raise ambition and aspiration if they feel the lid is always on for learners like them?


I had some very interesting chats with groups of young people aged between 13 and 16 on recent visits to two very different schools, which served very different communities, one with around 17% PP and one with over 40% PP. The young people were articulate and passionate about what they saw as the barriers to their achievement and talked openly about how they felt the ‘mountain’ was so much higher for them to climb than other pupils who were not hindered by the same set of circumstance they faced. Not one of the learners in front of me was in any set above set 3, for any subject across the curriculum. They all knew this, and all passively accepted that that was their position.


Interestingly, when we talked about aspiration and hopes for the future, they talked about knowing that “that boy over there is targeted to get a A/A* and I know he will be get a great job and earn lots of money. But I can only get a grade D so I am never really going to achieve much. I will probably end up never earning much money and so I will just repeat the cycle.” These young people were self-prophesising their outcomes and future and worse, accepting that as the status quo.


If we, as educators, are serious about reducing the inequalities within education, and the economic outcomes of children and future families by improving the outcomes of the poorest in pour society, then we need to really analyse and consider the systems and processes we have in place to foster ambition and aspiration. If learners see that the most disadvantaged pupils never make it to the top sets, then that is what they accept of themselves and we, as schools, set the bar too low and foster that lack of aspiration and ambition unconsciously.


I am not for one minute advocating our higher achieving learners becoming disadvantaged by placing them in lower sets to make room for PP learners, but I am asking you, as a leader, to really think about how you can change the shift and mind-set in your organisation to ensure that our poorest young people are truly given an opportunity to achieve above, not only their own expectation of themselves, but that they can openly see it is possible to compete with their more privileged peers. We must work consciously and with purpose on recognising and tackling unconscious bias to identify where our ‘normal’ practice, policies and systems unintentionally stigmatise or impact on children from our poorest backgrounds. Raising aspiration is critical to this – without showing our young people what they are capable of, giving them hope and aspiration to break the cycle they are in and then supporting them with every single opportunity to break down any barrier they face we can never hope to address the issue of systemic underperformance in those young people who already have a bigger ‘mountain’ to climb than their peers.



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