Tackling Social Disadvantage through Teacher Education

Tackling Social Disadvantage through Teacher Education

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This book addresses key issues related to teaching pupils from disadvantaged and impoverished backgrounds and provides a valuable reference and pedagogical tool for teachers and teacher educators. Research has consistently shown that the most economically disadvantaged pupils have the poorest educational outcomes. Austerity government policies and pressures of performativity on schools may have exacerbated this inequality. Yet many teachers remain ill-informed about the effects of social disadvantage on students’ learning and consequently are ill-prepared in appropriate teaching methods. The text critically examines the lessons from previous policy and practice, discusses cognitive and affective aspects of school learning for disadvantaged children and explores the pedagogic implications of research evidence. Using insights from existing research, the book examines the reasons why some trainees and teachers lack a critical perspective on the contexts of poverty and may hold deficit views of students in poverty that suggests they are unable to learn and need to be controlled. It explains some of the links between poverty, special needs, literacy and educational achievement and focuses on strategies for improvement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781912096619
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 10/18/2017
Series: Critical Guides for Teacher Educators
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 84
Product dimensions: 6.15(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Ian Thompson is an Associate Professor of English Education at the University of Oxford where he teaches on the PGCE and Master’s in Learning and Teaching. He taught English for sixteen years in comprehensive secondary schools.  He researches in the areas of English and literacy teaching, teacher education, collaborative learning, and social exclusion. These projects are linked through a commitment to researching social justice in education and the learning of those who face disadvantage.


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What is the history of previous policy attempts to both define disadvantage and address the consequences of disadvantage in schools in the UK?

• What are some of the key differences in policy and practice across the four jurisdictions of the UK?

• What are the policy implications behind uses by governments of terms such as 'social justice', 'social mobility' and 'social inclusion'?

• What are the implications for social disadvantage of current austerity government policies and pressures of performativity on schools?

• What are some of the key challenges for both initial teacher education and continuous professional development in schools?


Education matters to all young people. In the best of circumstances, education can offer many young people hope through the possibility of change for both themselves and the world around them (eg Ayers, 1995). Yet as both the Russian educational psychologist Vygotsky (1987) and the American psychologist Bruner (1960) argued long ago, education is not neutral. School education is necessarily social but it is not necessarily just. Children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, or with disabilities, are more likely to do significantly worse at school than their relatively more affluent or fortunate peers. They are less likely to be in well-resourced and successful schools. Factors of social class, ethnicity, language, gender and socioeconomic status remain the most prominent variables for all aspects of well-being such as health, education and access to public resources. This book aims to both understand the effects of disadvantage on young people and to explore some of the lessons from research on ways these can be addressed by teachers and schools.

Much education policy discourse adopted by successive governments in the UK has sought to address questions of how best to combat disadvantage, but educational inequalities persist (eg Ball, 2016; Raffo et al., 2007; Strand, 2014). This is an ethical issue and not one as a society that we can afford to ignore. Most teachers have a strong sense of social justice and care deeply about the children that they teach. Yet questions remain concerning:

* what teachers can do to address these issues given the constraints of teaching in an education system dominated by issues of performativity (Ball, 2006);

* what we can learn from the research literature on education and inequality;

* and the role of teacher education at both pre-service and in-service in tackling social disadvantage.

This first chapter looks at the history of previous policy attempts to both define disadvantage and address the consequences of disadvantage in schools in the UK. The chapter provides a definition of social disadvantage in education and maps out the policy importance of the recurring educational under-achievement of children living in poverty or disadvantaged by social exclusion. The chapter also explores the rhetoric and policy implications behind uses of terms such as 'social justice', 'social mobility' and 'social inclusion'. Finally, it addresses the implications for social disadvantage of current austerity government policies and pressures of performativity on schools and sets the challenges for both initial teacher education and continuous professional development in schools.

Defining disadvantage and social justice in education

Social justice in education is a broad term that is often very loosely defined both in schools and in Initial Teacher Educator (ITE) programmes. The definition adopted in this chapter is one of equity in education in terms of: educational policy; redistribution of resources; and practices within schools. Those pupils who lack access to these resources for whatever reason are by definition disadvantaged. Researchers in many countries have focused on addressing issues of social justice in teaching and teacher education, for example, in the USA (eg Cochran-Smith, 2010; Zymunt and Clark, 2015); New Zealand (eg Grudnoff et al., 2016); Australia (eg Burnett and Lampert, 2015); and the UK (eg McIntyre and Thomson, 2015; Thompson, McNicholl and Menter, 2016).

What these studies and others have in common are the conclusions that: discourses that blame the teachers and schools are unhelpful; more needs to be done in teacher education and ITE programmes to promote the learning and well-being of disadvantaged pupils; and that views held by educators that view educational failure as inevitable need to be challenged. Zeichner (2009, p xviii) has identified three broad theoretical conceptions of justice:

1. 'distributive theories' that explore the ways that resources and material goods are distributed amongst societies;

2. 'recognition theories' that focus on social relations within institutions and the ways that individuals understand concepts of justice within these workplaces; and

3. 'theories that attempt to pay attention both to distributive and relational justice.'

Following Fraser (1997) and Lister (2004), this book is written from the third perspective identified by Zeichner (2009) with a belief that tackling inequalities in education requires both a commitment to redistributive policies that allocate more resources to those in greatest need and to recognition, or respect, where individuals, groups and their cultures are treated with dignity and their views acknowledged. It is also written from an understanding that teachers and their views on social justice matter for the lives of disadvantaged young people. Despite the current policy landscape of austerity and the myth of meritocracy in education in the UK, some young people from low socio-economic backgrounds or with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) do succeed academically and emotionally in particular circumstances and contexts. As Thompson, McNicholl and Menter (2016) have argued, teachers' attitudes to disadvantage have a significant effect on their pedagogical practice. This book, therefore, also looks at the importance of challenging stereotypical views and learns from research of schools with positive cultures of collaboration in supporting disadvantaged pupils (Ortega, Thompson and Daniels, 2017).

Social inequality in education

My own interest in social justice in education stems from both my experience of teaching English in state secondary schools in England for 16 years and my more recent role in ITE programme. My first teaching post was at a comprehensive 11–16 inner city school in south-west England situated on an estate that suffered from extreme social deprivation. The school suffered from poor attendance figures, falling rolls and low attainment levels. A failed Ofsted inspection placed the school under Special Measures. In the four years before the local city council permanently closed the school, it was consistently in the bottom two or three schools nationally in GCSE league table results. One year, only 2 per cent of pupils achieved five C grades or more at GCSE.

Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the school was not meeting the needs of its many disadvantaged young people, the reasons for this were more complex than simply describing the school as 'failing'. Most of the teachers in the school were dedicated, hardworking and talented professionals who cared deeply about social disadvantage. Others had become jaded and blamed the problems of the school on the estate, the young people and the parents. Frequent inspections led to some teachers 'teaching from a script' and focusing on examination results rather than learning. In these circumstances, the most disadvantaged and disaffected were often overlooked despite the best efforts of many staff. Permanent school exclusions rose sharply as senior management sought to both impose order and prepare for the next inspection. When their school closed, despite a sustained campaign by the local community, many young people on the estate simply stopped attending school altogether. The educational system had failed them.

This was an extreme example of the lack of social justice in education but subsequent teaching jobs in a multi-cultural inner city school and in a successful school in a small town, as well as my wider experience of schools through ITE visits, has reaffirmed that disadvantage exists across different types of state schools. Even the most affluent areas will have children living in poverty, often without access to vital support systems, and expensive SEND provision may be the first victim of cuts in school budgets. Mental health is a growing issue amongst young people, affecting around one in 10 children (eg Thorley, 2016), and is a particular issue for many refugee adolescents (Fazel, Garcia and Stein, 2016). Thorley (2016) reports that demand for access to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) from schools has accelerated while cuts to National Health Service (NHS) and local authority early intervention mental health services has meant that CAMHS has struggled to meet this need. Schools are being left to deal with more cases of anxiety and depression without adequate financial and professional support.

Teacher quality and teachers' standards

At the same time as there are increasing pressures on schools and teachers in terms of dealing with social disadvantage, there is also evidence from international research and policy discourse that addressing social inequality in education requires an imperative to improve both teacher quality and the preparation of teachers (OECD, 2016). Indeed the education of teachers has been generally seen as a key policy tool to improve the quality of education (McKinsey, 2007). Although there is surprisingly no explicit reference to disadvantage in the Teachers' Standards in England, Teachers' Standard 5 does require teachers to:

* adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils;

* demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils' education at different stages of development.

(DfE, 2013)

Other standards include the requirements to set high expectations and to promote good progress and outcomes by pupils. Understanding pupils' development and supporting their progression as learners means that teachers need to be aware of the social, cultural, economic and cultural environments of children and the communities and school in which they live and learn. Teaching requires excellent subject knowledge, an understanding of how young people learn and develop, and the pedagogical skill needed to promote effective learning.

The qualified teacher shortage crisis

While schools are increasingly under pressure to deal with the effects of poverty and SEND, their capacity to do so has been affected by a growing qualified teacher shortage crisis. The combination of higher class sizes and fewer teachers and teaching assistants has put pressure on schools to deliver SEND provision. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) reports that:

* in the 12 months to Nov 2015 over 50,000 (10% of the total workforce) qualified teachers left the profession;

* 100,000 qualified teachers have never taught;

* schools spent £56m on advertising for staff (an increase of 62% on the previous year);

* there is a projected pupil increase of 1 million to 2025 (the equivalent of the need for 1,900 new schools).

(NUT, 2017)

More recent figures have shown that the number of unqualified teachers in state schools had increased to 24,000 in 2015–16 or 5.3 per cent of the total (6.2 per cent in secondary schools) (www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-workforce-in-englandnovember-2016). These figures follow the removal in 2012 of the requirement for academies and free schools to employ qualified teachers. Anecdotal evidence from my own contact with schools and English departments in particular suggests that suitably qualified teacher shortage is an acute problem, particularly in areas with high costs of housing. Official government figures show that in key secondary subjects in 2016, the percentage of teachers with no relevant post A-level qualification were:

* mathematics (22%);

* English (18.6%);

* physics (37.3%);

* chemistry (25.1%);

* biology (9.1%);

* history (24.9%);

* geography (33.8%);

* French (22%);

* German (29%);

* Spanish (47.7%).

At the same time, targets for recruiting trainee teachers have not been met in many subjects, particularly in mathematics, physics, design and technology, computing and business studies.

Child poverty and schooling

Child poverty is a cause of major concern for all schools and teachers. Evidence from both empirical research studies and statistical analyses has consistently shown that the most economically disadvantaged pupils have the poorest educational outcomes (eg Hills et al., 2010; Raffo et al., 2007; Strand, 2014) and that both policy reforms and the institution of schooling have largely failed young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds (eg Ball, 2003).

Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have shown that economic inequality is damaging to societies with major social and economic impacts on health and well-being. Poverty, they argue, is remarkably persistent in even the wealthiest societies and this inequity gap is damaging to all living in these societies in terms of social stability, public services and long-term economic growth. Wilkinson and Pickett also point out that the UK is among the most unequal of societies in the world, which they exemplify through examining the income of the richest 20 per cent as a multiple of the income of the poorest 20 per cent. The UK's multiple difference of seven between the incomes of the richest and poorest is almost twice as large as Japan or countries in Scandinavia. Cooper and Stewart (2013), in a systematic review of the literature, found that money makes a significant difference to the material outcomes of children's lives. Arguably, recent austerity measures that have cut school budgets are likely to have exacerbated this inequality.

Dorling (2011) and others (eg Lupton, 2006) have also shown that geographical patterns of poverty and wealth are localised and are closely associated with educational achievement. London, for example, in the year 2014–15, was both the most affluent region of the UK and at the same time had the highest child poverty rates. Research has also shown that in the four jurisdictions of the UK, educational inequalities surface in the pre-school years (Sylva et al., 2004), but continue to widen in both primary (elementary) and secondary (high) school years (Connelly, Sullivan and Jerrim, 2014).

Figures from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) suggest that child poverty fell dramatically between 1988–89 and 2011–12 by 800,000 children. However, the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that tax and benefit changes since 2010 will mean that the number of children living in poverty will rise from 2.3 million to 3.6 million by 2020 (poverty figures before housing costs). The CPAG has revealed that:

* 3.9 million children lived in poverty (after housing costs) in the UK in 2014–15. That is 28% of children or 9 in a classroom of 30.

* 34% of children in poverty live in families with three or more children.

* 66% of children in poverty live in a family where at least one member works.

* By GCSE there is a 28% gap between children receiving free school meals and their peers in the number achieving at least 5 A*–C grades.

* Child poverty costs to society are estimated at £29 billion a year.

(Child Poverty Action Group, 2017; www.cpag.org.uk/ child-poverty-facts-and-figures)

The negative effects of poverty on educational achievement has long been a policy concern for successive governments in the UK and tackling disadvantage and educational attainment remains a key part of both government policy and rhetoric. The UK Child Poverty Act of 2010, passed with cross-party support, placed a duty on the UK government, along with the devolved administrations, to establish and monitor four child poverty targets by 2020 as follows.

1. Relative poverty: for less than 10 per cent of children to live in relative low-income families. For this target, low income is defined as a net income below 60 per cent of the UK median.

2. Combined low income and material deprivation: for less than 5 per cent of children to live in material deprivation and low-income families. For this target, low income is defined as a net income below 70 per cent of the UK median.

3. Absolute poverty: for less than 5 per cent of children to live in absolute low-income families. For this target, absolute low income is defined as a net income below 60 per cent of an adjusted base amount of the year 2010–11.

4. Persistent poverty: for fewer children to live in relative poverty for periods of time of three years or more. The specific target is to be set at a later date.


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Copyright © 2017 Ian Thompson.
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Table of Contents

Foreword, vi,
About the series editor and author, vii,
Chapter 1 The policy and practice of disadvantage in education in the UK, 1,
Chapter 2 Tackling social disadvantage in the classroom, 15,
Chapter 3 Challenging misconceptions of disadvantage, 28,
Chapter 4 Language, literacy and disadvantage, 40,
Chapter 5 Researching poverty and teacher education, 53,
References, 64,
Index, 72,

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