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#Lightbulb Moment 9 - Part 3 of "How serious are you about tackling disadvantage?"

Recently I have been reading Kat Stern's book, " The Excludables," and the statistics she presents in her writing are stark and thought-provoking.

As someone who has always felt disadvantaged in terms of their background, gender and disability, and who is now passionate about championing the need to make a difference, and to approach education differently for our disadvantaged children, Stern's book has really made me reflect and think about what the research in the book is telling us.

The opening paragraph of her introduction is hard hitting! She presents statistics such as, " Students who receive free school meals are disproportionately excluded from school, they are 40% more likely to be permanently excluded, regardless of other demographics such as gender, race and special education needs." Exclusions therefore are not distributed equally and equitably across the gamut of our children. Why is this?

That raises the question of whether exclusions are automatically higher in schools that serve higher numbers of disadvantaged pupils, and within more socially deprived areas? Our automatic response may be 'yes' but there are schools around the country who do not follow this trend. There are some great examples of schools trying to do things differently, changing their philosophies and making a real impact!

IF we are to really try to close the gap for disadvantaged pupils then we need them in school - LEARNING! If we really believe - and I do as I am living proof of it - that education gives us the tool to change our lives, then these children are the very ones we should be fighting even harder for! These children are the ones we must listen to, spend our energy and time on, and actively fight for, because they deserve someone to champion them. They want to succeed as much as any other child in a more affluent situation - they just don't know how, and they have so much more to battle just to stay afloat. With the current cost of living crisis, those young people who are living in poverty, and with all the anxiety and anger that it brings with it, will be feeling their difference even more acutely. They will be living within an environment that is charged with anxiety, anger and fear, and that is very hard to manage for anyone on a daily basis - never mind if you are a young person with no power, growing up within this uncertainty and vulnerability.

Many young people will need to choose between staying home because parents cannot afford to send them in, and going into school to face ridicule for their lack of uniform, hunger because they do not have enough to eat, exhaustion from trying to get to school. For many of the young people I speak to this is a daily reality. Added to this is the guilt they feel for being a burden to their parents - who they know are struggling and under significant stress.

Recently, a very articulate and intelligent young man spoke to me about desperately wanting to go to school, but his mum could not afford to give him bus money, and his shoes were falling apart and his feet had blisters and constant chilblains. He explained that he knew he looked poor, and that this made him feel defensive as soon as he walked into the building. Added to this was the constant nagging he got off his form tutor about being late, the accepted ridicule and bullying that he felt took place every day as his form tutor and several other teachers commented on how scruffy and lazy he was, when the reality was he was exhausted after walking to school and listening to his parents fighting all night long. He wanted to succeed, and certainly had the ability to be very successful, but he was in a bottom set due to his attendance and lack of motivation. This added to his frustration as he felt he had been written off.

Working with the school to identify 15 pupils in similar situations and focusing on improving their morale and ambition, the way school accommodated their needs and looking at how the school could use grants differently to support their development, was challenging, and at times it felt like it was real uphill battle. Don't expect these children to automatically become model learners, grateful for all the support and help you are giving them! They are still angry, they are still bruised and they are still facing all the issues outside of school that they always have. However, you must commit to keep going - otherwise the message you give is that you are giving up on them too and that just reinforces their perception of themselves and their situation as hopeless, and therefore they question why should they even try?

The young man I spoke of earlier improved significantly - so much so that he moved up two sets and improved his attendance by 55%! It took six months of hard work but his sense of personal achievement was huge. Two years later he left school with 8 GCSEs at grades 5 and above, and went on to do an apprenticeship in a local college. 12 of his peers within the group achieved far beyond what they believed they could. That school, through patience, and strategic planning and thinking, made the difference to those children.

There is an old saying my mum used to say, "When poverty walks through the door, love flies out the window!" She meant that living in constant poverty, stress and anger destroys everything else. The constant fear of not knowing how you will keep your family fed properly, how you will manage if an unexpected bill arrives, or any other crisis that involves money, is horrendous and soul destroying.

Schools must look at their strategy to support pupils who are living these scenarios on a day to day basis. We have never needed support mechanisms more than we do now for these young people. They are frightened! They are feeling immense guilt! They are feeling helpless and guilt ridden! And they are feeling angry!

Children cannot learn unless the conditions are right for them to access the learning. Over the coming months, we are going to need to look very closely at how we make the conditions for children who are facing real poverty and crisis at home, to feel safe enough to access their learning. What systems do we need to put in place within our schools to ensure that the children who really need the support, get the support they need?

Look at pastoral and care systems within your school.

  • Who needs a daily check in to make sure they are in the right place to go into the classroom this morning? These are the children who will become one of those exclusion statistics very rapidly without sustained targeting.

  • Do you know which children are living in turbulent and stressful home situations? Who checks in on them? Not just " Hello Billy - you ok today?" How do you provide real and meaningful conversations with someone they trust - every single day!

  • Are your mentors/coaches people who really get poverty - have lived experience of it - and someone who the children recognise as authentic and credible?

  • How often are your disadvantaged children an item on your senior leadership meetings? Dept meetings? Pastoral meetings? What do those meetings focus on? What impact do they make?

  • What is the culture in school towards children in poverty and disadvantage? Can you be absolutely sure that these children are not metaphorically "written off" by some of your staff, and the systems you use for setting and data checking?

What does your school do well to make a difference for disadvantaged children? And more importantly , what can you do better? Who needs to be involved? What will it take to make your vision for these children a reality?

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