A fair education system – Is it possible? Reducing the Poverty Gap


February 24, 2015 by dragonflytraining

Author: Neil Atkin, @natkin

Where are we at in the UK now? Does this look equitable?

The Brilliant Club,  show these really stark statistics that highlight the extreme disadvantage of those on free school meals.

In my teaching career I have taught in some of the most challenging schools on the planet. In my role as a consultant I still regularly teach across the board from ‘outstanding’ to ‘failing’. What I have found is that in many of the highest achieving schools the students are merely compliant, they do what you tell them, but often are not very engaged in the subject, simply just wanting the top exam grade as efficiently as possible. In some of these schools the students struggle to tell me what they are thinking – apparently fearful of getting the ‘wrong’ answer (some high achieving girl’s schools are particularly bad). These students have a learned dependence and need the teacher to be their guide at all times. They can be ‘failure avoiders’, paralysed by fear when challenged- but can still perform very well at exams as they have learned how to effectively decode exam papers. This is enough for many of them to get into top universities- but it is not a great preparation for life. Some of these high achieving schools do a magnificent job so this is not a pop at high achieving schools in general.

By contrast in some very challenging schools the students are only compliant when they are engaged (or entertained- which is a completely different thing). Often they can be very sparky and intelligent students, but they have no concept of studying beyond the compulsory age. Evidence suggests that this is particularly prevalent in 11-16 schools where far less students carry on to higher level qualifications. I grew up with teacher parents and an expectation of going to university, if school doesn’t trigger these possibilities for our students, no one else will. Some schools have embedded a culture of talking about how what they are learning will help them at college to facilitate this and there is evidence that this can be effective. These schools tend to be in areas of social deprivation and can have a deeply embedded anti-learning culture in the local communities. This lack of societal diversity in schools can lead to ‘sink’ schools. This was the case in one I taught in which was seen as the school that you wouldn’t choose to go to. House prices around the more popular schools were artificially inflated and so there was an intake primarily from the local estate.

The school was constantly in and out of failing status, there was poor behaviour in many lessons and a lack of attendance at parents evenings. You often hear that in these communities the parents don’t care. That certainly wasn’t my experience. Most parents I encountered cared deeply, but many lacked the expertise to deal with their offsprings challenging behaviour at home, and were embarrassed to go to school to hear of more problems. Not going to school was a defence mechanism rather than a lack of concern.

Taken from a recent report from Demos:

“Harnessing what works in eliminating educational disadvantage…”


The school mix

There is disproportionate clustering of students within schools in terms of their personal characteristics, such as family income and ethnic origin. Clustering students with similar backgrounds in schools tends to strengthen social reproduction over generations because students in segregated poorer schools can receive poorer instruction at school, less qualified teachers, substandard resources and facilities, and generally poorer local services. These disadvantages feed on each other and perpetuate problems.

Segregation by poverty tends to depress the scores of the already disadvantaged, and so increase the poverty gap in attainment. 

I taught at a school that for generations had the reputation as the school you wouldn’t choose to send your kids to. Constant name changes and ‘fresh starts’  did nothing to change the culture of the school as the demographic remained the same. My first visit to the school the taxi driver told me “you don’t want to go there mate, it’s well rough!” 

This particular school had a fascinating culture, the toughest students and at one time the best staff I have ever worked with. It was a school where you could enter the staff-room at break time in a deep despair and emerge fifteen minutes later laughing. Despair often followed, but also those moments of elation, where you walked out of the classroom knowing you had nailed it and that being a teacher was the best job in the world. The misplaced feeling that you had now got it sussed was often quickly dissipated.

As a newly qualified Mountain-bike Leader I took my students on a ride out from the school. The bikes they turned up on were mostly dodgy with no front brakes – “Front brakes are dangerous, they throw you over the handlebars”. An exception was one very new and shiny Cannondale that the owner almost certainly didn’t have receipts for.

Eventually I’d fixed the bikes up to a level that was just below death trap and we set off. I watched in horror when I said to go out of the school and turn left assuming they would use the cycle lane, but they all set off on the pavement, narrowly missing a frail little old lady. I took the front to take them through the estate and hence didn’t see one of our year 11 students come out of a house  and punch Lee, knocking him off his bike and riding off on it. Lee then ran away so I had lost him and his bike within 10 minutes of setting off. I also hadn’t included mugging as a potential hazard on my risk assessment. I phoned Lee’s parents in trepidation, but they seemed completely unfazed. Eventually we got out and had a great time. On returning the students were saying ‘that was great, when can we go out again?’ What they didn’t see was that they could go out any time they wanted. There was a self imposed barrier to them accessing what was on their doorstep. Interviewing the year 11 mugger later I asked him what was going on.

“I sold him the bike for a tenner and he hadn’t paid me so I was getting it back’

“Where did you get the bike from?”

‘Well I nicked it, but he didn’t pay me for it…’

Nothing I could do could convince him that he wasn’t the owner of the bike. This warped moral compass was fairly widespread. One time, some of our students had attacked a couple walking home. The man, a barrister, had fallen and banged his head and went into a coma. The overwhelming feeling in my form class was that the attackers were unlucky that the injury had been so severe .. deeply embedded cultural values.

These are the experiences of three very different ex-students of mine from this school.

The quiet one

(School name removed) was a very difficult environment to learn in. Many of the teachers had little control over the pupils as a lot of my classmates just did not want to learn and were extremely disrespectful. I really think they had their work cut out for them! As a naturally shy child I found it easier to just ‘disappear’ and become invisible as a lot of the time in the classroom the other kids would bully anyone who actually wanted to learn. Often we were unable to have proper, structured lessons anyway.  Because I was so quiet and did not speak out in class (and was very rarely, if ever, encouraged to speak out) it made it hard for me later in life to voice my opinion in college and in work, as I had 4 years of being silent, so this is something I have really had to force myself to do.

I found that there were a couple of teachers there who really stood out for me and if it wasn’t for those few who really were able to control the class and were passionate about their subject, it would have been an even bigger struggle. I was also very lucky that I made a good group of friends who also wanted to learn so they were a very good influence on me.

For me, the school was quite a traumatic and hostile place to be in and all I ever wanted was to escape from there. Maybe this is why I have traveled the world so much and wanted to better myself constantly since I have left so perhaps it’s been good for me in some ways. I think if I had been in an environment though where I was better able to learn, then I possibly could have got better GCSE and A level results and gone on to university. As this is something I did not do as I had no belief that I was clever enough to do this.

The transformed one

I used to muck about at school, in the lessons they used to keep changing the group of people I was with so there was always someone new to talk to. If they had kept us in the same groups I’d have got bored and maybe done some more work. My parents had split up and didn’t really do anything to make me feel that school was important. A turning point came for me when I went on a snowboard trip to Italy that I paid for from my paper round money. It made me realise that there were other ways of living your life other than on the estate. I wanted out so started working harder. Many of my teachers struggled to control the classes, but a few really took an interest and seemed to care. I did ok in my GCSEs then stayed on at school for 6th form.  A couple of teachers persuaded me to try to get to uni and now I have a degree. I think the school taught me that nothing comes to you unless you make it happen yourself.

A life transformed by one school trip, this is impossible to measure and sadly school trips are on the wane. A 2010 report from MPs, Transforming Education Outside the Classroom, found that there was a risk that school trips were becoming the preserve of private school children.

What can be done?

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is the national voice for learning outside the classroom. We believe that every young person (0-19yrs) should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances.

The NCETM has ideas for learning maths outside the classroom here

The truant

School always seemed to me to be a place to have a laugh with your mates. A few lessons were interesting , but most were really boring and seemed to have no relevance to my life. My uncle gave me a job labouring for him when I was 14 so I stopped going to school and most teachers didn’t seem to care, but one didn’t give up on me and I got an A level. I got excluded a few times for fighting , but you had to stand up for yourself. 

My experience of the school is that those who came out of it well came out of it very well indeed,  with huge resilience and self – motivation. Sadly for most of the students they were failed by the education system that was a post code lottery.

So what can be done?

Can we change their mindset?

The work of Carole Dweck and her Growth Mindset is very persuasive.


Geoff Petty has written an interesting article  herehttp://www.teacherstoolbox.co.uk/T_Dweck.html

I quote

Dweck divides students into two types, based on the student’s own theory about their own ability.

Fixed IQ theorists: These students believe that their ability is fixed, probably at birth, and there is very little if anything they can do to improve it. They believe ability comes from talent rather than from the slow development of skills through learning. “It’s all in the genes”. Either you can do it with little effort, or you will never be able to do it, so you might as well give up in the face of difficulty. E.g. “ I can’t do maths”.

Untapped Potential theorists : These students believe that ability and success are due to learning, and learning requires time and effort. In the case of difficulty one must try harder, try another approach, or seek help etc.

About 15% of students are in the middle, the rest are equally divided between the two theories. Surprisingly there is no correlation between success at school and the theory the student holds. Differences in performance only show when the student is challenged or is facing difficulty , for example when a student moves from school to college. Then research has shown that the ‘Untapped Potential Theorists’ do very much better, as one might expect.

It is possible to move students from the Fixed IQ theory to the Untapped Potential theory. However, the research which shows that this can be done, is not at all detailed about how exactly! It’s a matter of persuasion of course.

Many teachers, myself included, thought that “it’s obvious” that learning is worth the effort and can produce improvement. But almost half of our students at every level, do not share this view. The challenge to change their view will be well rewarded.

Why bother with Dweck? A recent review of research by Hattie, Biggs and Purdie into the effectiveness of Study Skills programmes found that the programmes that had the greatest effect focussed on the ‘attribution’ by students of what affected their learning – this is precisely Dweck’s focus. Whether students attribute their success to something they can change or to something they can’t is immensely influential, and this attribution can be changed. The effect sizes found by Hattie et al showed that work on attribution can improve a student’s performance by between two and three grades!

Dylan Wiliam says

“Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and that their personalities do not determine whether or not they are “good at math” or “good at writing.” Rather, ability is incremental. The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

As a counterpoint to some who are approaching the work of Dweck with a simplistic and near religious zeal Disappointed Idealist has an interesting blog.


Her Summary

The above (Dylan William ) quote is wrong, and so is the notion of “Talent = hard work + persistence”

Dweck’s careful research is metamorphosing in the hands of others into a vacuous slogan

Ability, or talent, is significantly constrained by factors external to the student

These disadvantages cannot always be overcome

An education system which refuses to recognise these disadvantages punishes children, teachers and schools unjustly

The “Talent = hard work + persistence” version of the growth mindset is very useful for sociopaths

“Growth Mindset” is potentially the next “learning styles” or “progress in each lesson” fad

I have a bucket of penguin-regurgitated fish dinners waiting for any teacher who tells my children they only failed because they didn’t try hard enough, and for any head who uses the growth mindset to avoid providing the additional assistance they need

Other factors affecting those living in Poverty

Research indicates that other factors also influence brain plasticity including rate of maturation, hormones, diet, disease, medication, drugs and stress. This is a view of learning from a psychological or scientific perspective.

Educational disadvantage thought of in this way is a lack of stimulation and experience, and this can, at least to some extent, be remediated or compensated for by intervening to provide these experiences as early as possible or, if necessary, by providing them for older children, while the brain is still able to respond. Educational disadvantage differs from the variation in an individual’s physiology, outlined above, in that we can at least attempt to intervene to level the playing field by providing early intervention and targeted support. From the point of view of brain development, the earlier the better.

A food tech teacher friend was saying that her poorer students cant afford all the ingredients and as some of the grades are for appearance they are disadvantaged. One of my ex students still feels the guilt at stealing dye from Woolworths for an art project as she had no money. There are so many unheard stories that contribute to educational disadvantage.

Should we make reducing the Poverty Gap a priority?

Successive governments have repeated the vote- catching mantra of “closing the poverty gap” , “Every Child Matters (though if you are on the C/D grade boundary you may matter more than others ) or “No child left behind”

The problem is the gap isn’t getting any smaller, in fact in Britain last year it widened. This is clearly a complex issue.

data gap


How about making all schools better?

You would think this would crack the problem , but it appears that the poverty gap remains stubbornly similar (or even greater ) despite how good the schools are. The free school meal students do better in good schools, than in poorer ones, but the gap remains the same or greater between them and their wealthier peers.

poor children gcse


Countries with more equitable societies and schools (eg Finland ) do not suffer as much from this phenomenon of less bright rich kids outperforming clever poor kids. Improving schools per se seems to have less effect than making schools more comprehensive. Reflecting the mix of our society rather than the inequalities. There seems to be no silver bullet of certain types of schools being better than others. Research cannot give us a simple set of measures that schools can put in place to reduce this poverty gap. Some schools have removed it completely, but there are no common patterns emerging.

What about making teachers better?

Performance related Pay aims to reward the highest performers, but how can we know what are the best teachers?  All too often simplistic measures are used with spreadsheet accounting. A totally different skill  set is needed to improve the results of a class with a critical mass of students with behaviour issues and anti learning culture than those who are desperate to succeed. In some schools you can only achieve success by inspiring the students

From Demos

However, actually identifying differentially effective teachers is not easy. Confounding factors include the background, prior experiences and initial talent of the students,the variability between alternative measures of attainment such as examining body, year, syllabus, region, mode of examination and subject, and the inconvenient fact that most students are taught by more than one teacher, perhaps including those outside the school system such as family, peers and tutors. When assessing the impact of teachers on student attainment, the propagation of initial error (as above) and the stratified nature of the confounding variables faced are such that no teacher ‘effect’ can be safely attributed.

Again no silver bullet here. The range of variables are so massive that we cant identify the best teachers to reduce the poverty gap on external markers alone. There seems to be no description of the best teachers, because of the complexity and variation of humanity.Tutors are a factor that cant be measured and will skew results making a lot of research meaningless.  One survey suggested that 31 per cent of children from better off families receive private tuition, compared with 15 per cent from poorer families. So a poor teacher can appear to do well if the students have good tutors.  

However the measured teacher effect is massive to the lower achievers.

A more promising avenue may be to focus on teachers. The performance of teachers is much more varied than that of schools, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately affected by the quality of teaching they receive. For pupils from poorer backgrounds, a very effective teacher enables them to make 1.5 years’ progress in one year; with a poorly performing teacher they make only half a year’s progress over the same time. By contrast, ‘average’ students make a year’s progress with poor teaching and 1.4 years’ progress with highly effective teaching.

We should place more emphasis on ensuring that highly effective teachers are teaching children from low income backgrounds.

Although clearly the best teachers have a huge impact, again like the schools there seems to be no clear description of what they do. We only know they are effective when we see their results. Although we cant identify the key features that make these teachers very effective when we find them we should use them. In my experience these are teachers who genuinely car, have a passion for their subject, understand where their students are coming from, but take no excuses for underperformance.

How about working on changing parental attitudes and expectations ?

Surely this will be effective

There is very little evidence that educational outcomes for disadvantaged families will be fundamentally affected by changing parenting styles, raising parental expectations, or

enhancing parental involvement.24 They are not important causes of low attainment, or of under-representation in post compulsory education. A fundamental problem lies in the fact

that parental involvement requires voluntary activity. Programmes to promote involvement do not seem to be effective for the most disadvantaged families; indeed such programmes may even widen the gap in attainment.

We seem to have a catch 22 here in that the parents we want to engage with the schemes are the ones who don’t engage. Schemes to improve adult literacy are notoriously hard to implement 

What about improving behaviour?

This is something that is essential in schools where the behaviour of some students impacts negatively on others. Streaming by ability can make these issues far worse. Behavioural problems are often associated with the lower set classes containing under performing students who see school as entertainment as opposed to an investment for the rest of their life. Perversely those students who most need good quality instruction and teaching are less likely to get it. This was the case of the ‘quiet one’ pupil who effectively disengaged with education to protect herself. I suspect the reason the classes with a poor teacher makes such little progress with the lower attainers comes mainly down to their inability to actually teach due to disruption. These same teachers may perform well in classes which are naturally compliant.

What do teachers feel the problems are with behaviour?


Disturbing other children (38%)

Calling out (35%)

Not getting on with work (31%)

Fidgeting or fiddling with equipment (23%)

Not having the correct equipment (19%)

Purposely making noise to gain attention (19%)

Answering back or questioning instructions (14%)

Using mobile devices (11%)

Swinging on chairs (11%).

Source: Poll conducted by YouGov for Ofsted


What works according to OFSTED?

OFSTED – Successful practice in spending Pupil Premium


1 Where schools spent the Pupil Premium funding successfully to improve achievement, they shared many of the following characteristics. They:

Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels

Thoroughly analysed which pupils were underachieving, particularly in English and mathematics, and why

Drew on research evidence (such as the Sutton Trust toolkit4) and evidence from their own and others’ experience to allocate the funding to the activities that were most likely to have an impact on improving achievement

Understood the importance of ensuring that all dayto-day teaching meets the needs of each learner, rather than relying on interventions to compensate for teaching that is less than good

Allocated their best teachers to teach intervention groups to improve mathematics and English, or

Employed new teachers who had a good track record in raising attainment in those subjects

Used achievement data frequently to check whether interventions or techniques were working and made adjustments accordingly, rather than just using the data retrospectively to see if something had worked

Made sure that support staff, particularly teaching assistants, were highly trained and understood their role in helping pupils to achieve

Systematically focused on giving pupils clear, useful feedback about their work, and ways that they could  improve it

Ensured that a designated senior leader had a clear overview of how the funding was being allocated and the difference it was making to the outcomes for pupils

Ensured that class and subject teachers knew which pupils were eligible for the Pupil Premium so that they could take responsibility for accelerating their progress

Had a clear policy on spending the Pupil Premium,agreed by governors and publicised on the school website

Provided well-targeted support to improve attendance,behaviour or links with families where these were barriers to a pupil’s learning

Had a clear and robust performance management system for all staff, and included discussions about pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium in performance management meetings

Thoroughly involved governors in the decision making and evaluation process

Were able, through careful monitoring and evaluation,to demonstrate the impact of each aspect of their spending on the outcomes for pupils.

Impact of Arts 

Some very encouraging statistics from the Cultural Learning Alliance.


Learning through arts and culture improves attainment in all subjects

Taking part in drama and library activities improves attainment in literacy

Taking part in structured music activities improves attainment in maths, early language acquisition and early literacy

Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in America have shown consistently higher average reading and mathematics scores compared to similar schools that do not

UK evidence shows that studying arts subjects increases confidence and motivation – things that equip pupils to learn. A systematic review of international evidence found that participating in structured arts activities led to increases in transferrable skills (including confidence and communication) of between 10-17%(1).  The Right to Read programme reported increases in social skills and self esteem(2). In the US, large cohort studies of 25,000 students done by James Catterall show that taking part in arts activities increases student attainment in maths and literacy, with particularly striking results for students from low income families(3).

“Our analysis of the NELS:88 survey established, for the first time in any comprehensive way, that students involved in the arts are demonstrably doing better in school than those who are not” Catterall, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, 2009

For example at age 16 41% of students from low income families who engage in the arts score in the top two quartiles of standard academic tests compared to 25% of students from the same backgrounds who do not(4). Other studies echo these results with Ruppert finding that students who take arts classes have higher math and verbal SAT scores than students who take no arts classes(5).

Research shows specific art forms have specific benefits, for example studies have shown that high levels of involvement in instrumental music result in significantly higher maths proficiency. Taking part in drama results in gains in reading proficiency, motivation and empathy for others. Young people using libraries read above the expected level for their age, young people who don’t read below the expected level(6).

In Summary 

The poverty gap is very real and a terrible indictment of our society.  Research seems to give us very little insight into how to close the poverty gap within the current school system. The key factor seems to be a more equitable society and a fairer education system but there is little sign of that happening. What is perhaps most worrying is that there is little consensus on what factors make for effective schools, or individual teachers.

In my experience the teachers who are most effective at teaching those in the poverty gap have the following features;

They have a passion for their subject

They genuinely care about the students and want to understand them

They dont take themselves too seriously and can laugh

They can engage their students rather than just make them compliant.

They are not afraid to give of themselves and can use their intuition

They build relationships based on respect

Useful Blogs

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation http://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/education-and-povertyhttp://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/education-and-poverty

Living and Learning in Poverty   http://livinglearninginpoverty.blogspot.co.uk/

Centre for Research on Families and Relationships http://crfrblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/routes-out-of-poverty-education-and.html

Teacher Toolkit  http://teachertoolkit.me/2014/02/08/raising-aspirations-and-equal-access-by-teachertoolkit/

How to improve the quality of teacher development?

Ten essays


Some ideas by Tom Sherrington here


Getting the kids to ask why?  from Sarah Findlater



One thought on “A fair education system – Is it possible? Reducing the Poverty Gap

  1. An Activist Abroad says:

    This is a fascinating article. Many thanks for posting it. I work for People in Harmony, an organisation that deals with issues of race, and racism, in particularly with mixed race families. As I am sure you are aware, race is also an indicator of academic achievement in the UK. We are holding an event entitled Mixed Race and Education, in London on 25th April. It would be extremely beneficial to the discussion if anyone interested in race and education attended this free event. It is free, and places need to be booked here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pih-open-debate-mixed-race-education-tickets-15734459191

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