Knowledge Bank - Inclusion

Vulnerable Children – A Wider Perspective on Disadvantage

Resistance to learning and slow progression in the classroom have a number of causes. The causes can be split into two categories: socio-economic, and mental/physical differences.

The most common of these causes is related to the disadvantaged circumstances of a child’s upbringing that can mean children are very much behind their peers in language development, general knowledge, social and personal skills and behaviour.

Socio-economic disadvantage
There is a very close correlation – and some researchers say a direct causal link-between economic disadvantage and failure to thrive in school. Students from deprived backgrounds typically have less access to a good, broad curriculum and related extension activities. They may find their curriculum irrelevant to their perception of their future, or not sufficiently engaging.

 In many, but not all cases, basic cognitive skills like visual focusing, concentration and listening accurately have not been instilled by children’s parents or carers and need to be remediated. Children from wealthy but absent or neglectful parents can also have these deficiencies. A child’s education can be hampered by parents not having access to the necessary information or knowledge to support their child’s learning. Alongside this, a parent’s negative perception of education can often become engrained in their child, preventing success. In addition, the 2009 “Deprivation and Education” report  by the DfE found that pupils from deprived backgrounds may lack the educational resources and parental support to complete homework. Lacking both the support and resources, these children are in danger of never catching up unless these cognitive skills are taught.

Gaps in educational achievement by ethnic group have narrowed considerably over the last twenty years. Since the early 2000s, most broad ethnic groups have seen, on average, a greater improvement in attainment at age 16, compared with White British pupils. However, this is not the case for all ethnic groups. Disadvantage is evident particularly in exclusion rates in some ethnic minorities, which are much higher than those in others. Although educational attainment may have improved, inequality appears to still be prevalent. Certain ethnic groups are more likely to be at a disadvantage, as seen in a study carried out in 2009-10, where Black Caribbean boys were 11 times more likely to be permanently excluded than White girls of the same age in similar schools.

Mental and physical disadvantage

The other side of disadvantage involves a physical or mental disability, or condition, which may or may not have a medical origin.  Cerebral Palsy, Autism and Speech and Language Difficulties are some of the more common conditions with a physiological provenance; some others like Dyslexia, ADHD, or ADD are more controversial both in their causes or even in their existence, except as broad descriptive categories. Those with special needs particularly face are particularly at risk of facing difficulties at school. There is a possible third category of cause of learning delay: behaviour problems.  Some claim all behaviour problems are a result of mental health issues resulting from poor socialisation or frustration from children’s ‘medical’ conditions.  But labelling all behaviour problems as a mental health issue is challenged by those that say that it can be a legitimate response to oppressive school regimes, poor relationships between staff and pupils, or just a response to the extreme physical and mental regulation schools impose on children, particularly those that are not academically inclined. For the purposes of this Knowledge Bank we are concentrating on learning difficulties related to economic and social disadvantage. Other Knowledge Banks are planned on  ‘Conditions’ and Behaviour.

Addressing disadvantage

Challenge the Gap

Challenge the Gap is a layered approach to learning more about why there is an achievement gap, and how we can work towards closing the gap. This method provides schools with practical tools and strategies to break the link between financial deprivation and poor outcomes. The focus here is particularly on collaboration, in order to drive long-term performance improvement.

The layered approach involves school leaders, teachers and “paraprofessionals”. Challenge the Gap requires a Lead school, which powers the partnership with two other schools, called Accelerator schools. These schools work closely across the year long programme. Each school identifies a target cohort of 15 students who are eligible for Free School Meals – now pupil premium.

This method works on three levels:

1) A dedicated senior leader is chosen from each school. They focus on sharing and implementing whole-school strategies that raise attainment and awareness among all staff.
2) Up to three teachers (depending on whether the school is primary or secondary) trial, evaluate and share the most effective teaching methods that make a difference.
3) “Paraprofessionals” provide input on the teaching. A paraprofessional can be a teaching assistant, pastoral or learning mentor or another member of staff involved in learning, such as a librarian.

According to the 2009 “Deprivation and Education” report by the DfE, these members of the wider workforce  have been shown to be an important element of school support for deprived pupils, where used effectively. These mentors have a unique perspective of the complexities of disadvantage students’ lives. They are able to provide the time, skills and nurture the relationships with both children and their families in order to support the work of the teachers and leaders in closing the gap. The paraprofessionals use some of the programme tools to track the progress of the softer skills for these children.

The programme allows schools to address the issues which children from disadvantaged backgrounds face. By tracking development and communicating between sessions and across schools, educational leaders are able to form a clear vision and strategy for breaking the link between poverty and school performance.

Philosophy for Children (P4C)

P4C is an enquiry based pedagogy which is designed to drive better thinking, communication and collaboration. This approach to teaching works particularly well for children who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The method is based on three main principles:

1) Pupils take leadership of the lesson.
2) Pupils tackle profound philosophical questions.
3) Pupils learn respect and the resilience to challenge.

By dealing with topics where there is no “correct” answer, P4C encourages inclusion and collaboration amongst students. This provides students with an equal voice, and opens up multiple lines of enquiry. Students from less advantaged backgrounds are given the space to find their voice and build confidence. Since group work can often impact negatively on deprived pupils if care is not taken to ensure fair and affective practice, P4C lifts the barriers which usually hinder vulnerable children, and therefore all views can be expressed. Benefits are seen in increased engagement with their own learning, attainment levels and school contribution. In a recent trial of P4C, children eligible for Free School Meals made four months’ more progress in reading than expected, as well as an additional three months’ in maths and two months’ in writing. Improvements were also experienced in regards to confidence, patience and self-esteem. 

Alongside this, P4C has encouraged significant developments in children with special educational needs. Results here are seen in levels of articulacy and confidence, since the scheme allows SEN children to find their own voice amongst their peers. Even children with the weakest verbal skills the opportunity to start speaking, due to the encouragement of enquiry based learning. Notably, the approach helps those who find social situations particularly difficult. For example, opening up the classroom to conversation allows autistic children to learn how to situate themselves within, rather than outside of, discussion. Therefore, an ethos of equality is created, by helping to integrate otherwise disadvantaged children.


There are many subject specific forms of remediation, for reading or maths learning delays, for example. However, this Knowledge Bank is looking at more generalised cognitive form of remediation. One leading theorist here is Professor Reuven Feuerstein and his approach of Mediated Learning. He has been singled out because his work has influenced so many others, even though his ideas are now so diffused in the field that he is rarely acknowledged. He is the father of the Thinking Skills movement, along with Professor Matthew Lipman of Philosophy For Children, and his ideas can be found in such approaches as Learning to Learn, The Competency Based Curriculum, Metacognition, Dispositions and Habits of Mind and much more. By applying Reuven Feuerstein’s approach, teachers can tackle the problem of diagnosing and remediating student’s learning difficulties. The mediated approach elevates the role of the teacher, and aligns clinical and pedagogical practice. Feuerstein’s work is based on his studies of low-performing children after the Holocaust, where upheaval, destruction and disintegration characterised their cultural and educational history. From this experience, Feuerstein theorised that social circumstances had stolen the necessary interaction with adults, preventing the child’s development of interpretive skills involving analysis and reflection. Therefore, the mediated method is all about reintroducing the transferral of intellectual skills, emphasising the interaction between the adult and learner.

Believing that these skills are passed on generationally, Feuerstein assigns the responsibility of mediation to the child’s network of family and teachers, relating the collapsed framework of society to the younger generation’s poor intellectual skills. Today, the issue of dislocation and educational deprivation is a global matter, stemming from mass migration, uprooting the younger generation. In our own society, communities with traditional cultures and practices are also being swept away as new technologies are developed. As a result, there is a need for a socio-cultural perspective of education. 

In an effort to solve this issue, Feuerstein created Instrumental Enrichment, a programme of intervention designed to assist teachers in delivering MLE. This method of learning stresses the need to actively intervene in the child’s life, to help them move from sensation to perception, and thence to cognition. The aim is to provide children, regardless of their background, with the right to look, see and interact with the world around them. This learning system involves a three way approach:

1) Intent – focusing the child’s attention and behaviour by varying the mediator’s body language, gestures and tone of voice.
2) Meaning- creating transcendent interaction by leading the child towards broader contexts to instil a need for knowledge. Imparting meaning provides a power that keeps the learner involved in the interaction.
3) Transcendence – a process of giving order and value to the child’s surrounding stimuli and reality. This allows connections to be made between the specific and the general, moving the line of thought beyond the immediate situation.

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