The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Disadvantage: looking beyond the pupil premium

School leaders can take meaningful steps to address the prevalence of disadvantage, not just through the use of pupil premium but their core budget.

Disadvantaged children have an unequal start in life. Such children have shorter learning days, can lack ‘broader knowledge’ and cultural capital, and can struggle with completing homework. These disadvantages can create a vicious circle unless schools take compensatory steps, not just through the use of pupil premium but their core budget. 

In 2010, the Child Poverty Act was passed with cross-party support. At its heart was the then-prime minister, Tony Blair’s 2001 pledge to end child poverty by 2020. Last year the Act was abolished, as were the targets to reduce poverty and the measure of poverty based on family income.

Suffice it to say that poverty is still with us, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. We are told some schools even have to feed and clothe their children before they can educate them. At a broader level disadvantage continues to pervade all aspects of education, such as attendance, learning motivation, behaviour, parental involvement and exam results.

The scale of disadvantage

Social class has been found to be strongly associated with educational achievement. It impacts on attainment levels, not as a one-off effect prior to school entry but as a compounding effect throughout school life. Human development arises from a dynamic interplay between the proximal (individual) level characteristics and the distal (wider) environmental forces.

For example, a lack of family income could prevent disadvantaged children from gaining access to educational activities if expensive fees are required. Furthermore, poorer parents may be disadvantaged by their poor education, the area in which they live or their awareness of the resources available in their area.

Disadvantage is also historical. Many children start to fall behind from as early as 22 months in age and never catch up with their more advantaged peers. In addition, many of the problems can be multi-generational, which presents a real challenge for schools and other agencies.

Conversely, children with a higher socioeconomic status (SES) might have educated parents who invest more of their time and energy into educating their children. Wealthier families can also provide more educational resources at home and be surrounded by a more resourced community.

According to the philosopher Harry Brighouse, various mechanisms within the school system ensure that some students get more effective educational resources devoted to them than others, and those who have more resources devoted to them are the already-more-advantaged students.

Furthermore, these students come to the school already better equipped to take advantage of the resources devoted to them in the school. Their greater linguistic resources and cultural capital give them what Hirsch (1987) described as the 'broader knowledge'.

Recognition and responses

As early as 1967, the Plowden Report made a case for greater resources to be given to poorer children and the schools that taught them. They did not want mere equality but 'positive discrimination'. They wanted schools in deprived areas to be given priority over others: 

‘The first step must be to raise the schools with low standards to the national average; the second, quite deliberately to make them better. The justification is that the homes and neighbourhoods from which many of their children come provide little support and stimulus for learning. The schools must supply a compensating environment.’ (paragraph 151)

Various mechanisms within the school system ensure that some students get more effective educational resources devoted to them than others

In recognition of the barriers faced by disadvantaged pupils in our schools, the current government response is in the form of the pupil premium. This provides additional funding to schools based on the number of pupils who are eligible for free school meals, a proxy for disadvantage.

However, some teachers are uncomfortable with what they see as preferential treatment of some of their children. For them this goes against the principle of fair access for all.

The problem with such view is that it sees the world ahistorically, apolitically and with little attention to the wider context in which these pupils live their lives. Consequently, it leads to children and their families being pathologised. They are blamed for the situation in which they find themselves.

In my view pupil premium has proved to be a good start in enabling schools to respond to disadvantage. What is needed now is for the education system to build on some of the excellent practice that has been developed through this funding. One way to do so is to make an impact on the lives of children outside school.


It is worth reminding ourselves that children spend only a small proportion (15%) of their lives in school. This limits the impact teachers can have. It is also worth pointing out that, compared to their more advantaged peers, poorer children have much shorter learning days. They have what Lareau (2003) referred to as an ‘unequal childhood’. While the well-off children have opportunities to learn throughout the day, their poorer peers are often reliant on the school for cultural capital activities.

The amount of time the children spend away from school also points to the potential for parents to make a difference. The main way they do so is through their ‘at home parenting’.

However, it is necessary to remember that parents from disadvantaged communities, who have received less education themselves, do not always realise that they have a contribution to make to their child’s education. Even those that do realise may not know how to make such a contribution. In such a situation teachers and parents could work as equal partners, based on mutual respect and understanding.

Teachers and parents can work as equal partners, based on mutual respect and understanding

To impact on the wider (out-of-school) parts of children’s lives will require teachers to leave the safety of their classrooms and go into the external community. Based on the intentions of the Plowden Report, such efforts will also mean positive discrimination through increased resource investment, beyond what is currently available through pupil premium. This may be the only way of breaking what Rutter and Madge (1976) referred to as the ‘cycle of deprivation’ affecting those who parent the next generation.

Moreover, this may just be the way of taking us nearer our desired goal of closing the gap in attainment that continues to blight the education system.


Hirsch, E. D. (1987), Cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton

Lareau, A. (2003), Unequal childhoods. Berkley: University of California Press.

Rutter, M and Madge, N, (1976), Cycles of disadvantage. London: Heinemann.   

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