The Language of Social Mobility.

If you are reading this from outside the Narnian land of education, you would be staggered just how much we use the word ‘disadvantaged’. It peppers policy documents, development plans and inspection reports. I have tried searching through the Internet and social media for some semblance of criticism of its use. I can find none. There are one of two mildly critical reports to which I will refer later, but very little from the teaching profession.

And yet I cannot believe that there are not people who think like I do, that the use of the word ‘disadvantaged’, in public policy terms, is overly simplistic and possibly even counter-productive.

The ‘disadvantaged’ label, and the consequent fragile (albeit laudable) attempts to divert money and resources towards this amorphous group, is demeaning and divisive. It fails to understand the nature of people who live in so-called ‘disadvantaged communities.’

In my view, this is an issue of psychology and values, not one which money can remotely hope to solve. It goes to the heart of our identity, our pride, our community and our relationships with each other.

Let me put forward four clear points to explain why I think this policy is not working: firstly, the psychology of labelling; secondly, defining ‘disadvantaged people’; thirdly, adverse effects of ‘top-down’ policy, and finally, the impact of policy on administration in schools and its perverse incentives.

Firstly, in an echo of the referendum argument, I am convinced that the debate surrounding this issue is located in the wrong playing field i.e. an economic one.

In the 2016 referendum campaign, Remainers were far too late in realising their catastrophic error. They had plunged their primary argument firmly into people’s pockets; it was all about money. Pro-Europeans did not deploy enough emotional argument until Ruth Davidson got up to speak at Wembley Stadium, two days before the vote. Not enough was done to explain how values and psychology play a crucial role – the emotional argument was comprehensively won by the leavers.

In the same vein, educational policy for so-called disadvantaged groups is based on money through the ‘pupil premium’ and the strategies employed by schools to distribute the money. I argue that money is simply not the main issue. It might help in a transitory way, rather like taking a paracetamol, but it is an ultra-inefficient way to address the growing worry of inequalities between sections of society.

Similarly, with the use of the term ‘disadvantaged’, and its ubiquity in the liberal media, no one has thought to imagine how it feels to be labelled ‘disadvantaged’. Well, step back and just try to imagine it. Imagine some well-meaning agent of the state knocking on your door and suggesting that you ‘engage’ with local support services. I know what I’d do; I’d tell them to get lost, go to the pub and keep as far away as possible.

Call people ‘disadvantaged’ and they will run a mile.

My second point revolves around identification. Which lucky souls get to be called ‘disadvantaged’ anyway? Now this is classic. I know of some colleagues (yes, colleagues, not parents) who last year qualified to be disadvantaged, but this year they don’t. It is to do with a level of earnings. A simple blunt division based on money.

But hold on. That same person, by now being in the ‘advantaged’ group, is deemed to be danger-free in every other area of their life that could (I stress the conditional tense here) present significant pressures to that person: housing; family break-up, substance or alcohol abuse, petty crime, maybe mental health concerns – all factors that surely could lead to someone being called disadvantaged. Labelling someone ‘disadvantaged’ solely based on income is beyond simplistic.

And does putting all the disadvantaged eggs in a basket marked ‘MONEY’ always make someone ‘disadvantaged’? I went to a fee-paying school where the lads I shared a dormitory with (desolate places typified by a lack of privacy and rife with bullying) were going through some of the most achingly upsetting family situations one could possibly imagine. Essentially, their parents had abandoned them. Yes, they had money, lots of it, but could you really say they were ‘advantaged’ as they lay in Stalinist bunkers dreaming of the parents they never saw?

Thirdly, the use of the word ‘disadvantaged’ highlights just how out of touch policy-makers are with the British people. I think too many of these ‘think tanks’ underestimate the pride of the traditional working-class. That’s why so many of the latter group have deserted Labour – they are sick of being patronised, and you can’t get much more patronising that labelling your neighbour ‘disadvantaged’.

No matter how many problems people face, there is, more often than not, a deep-rooted belief in making ends meet and seeking the approval of one’s children, neighbours and peers. Mrs May was getting close to this with her ‘just about managing’ rhetoric, though subsequent events have derailed any mileage that train might have had. Actually, whilst we’re talking about Mrs May, surely she’s a good candidate to be labelled ‘disadvantaged’ – after all, she’s got no friends, and, in dealing with Brexit, has the misfortune to be landed with the worst act of self-immolation in British history.

And so to my last point, regarding perverse incentives. The philosopher, Dame Onora O’Neill, has made some brilliantly argued points about how our addiction to accountability has produced incentives which have the opposite impact to that which were intended. I think the ‘disadvantaged’ policy is a perfect example (though there are many to choose from).

Let me explain. As a headteacher, my aim is to reduce disadvantage and inequality through creating a good school for ALL pupils and families. But the more the families in the community are proud, confident and self-sufficient, the more money is taken from my budget as my disadvantaged pot is reduced. I would be a rich man if I had a £20 note for every headteacher who has lamented, ‘Do you know our community is one of the most deprived in Britain?’. It is therefore in the interests of schools to have as many ‘disadvantaged’ students as humanly possible. And keep them that way.

The relative success of many of the ethnic-minority groups in our schools supports my argument still further. Indian, Arab and Chinese groups, to name but a few, place a high value on education and parents typically support their children well, often in spite of economic hardship. Their performance is often very good, but crucially they very often attract the pupil premium too; savvy schools do their utmost to attract these students and gain a ‘double win’, leaving the White British ‘just about managing but advantaged’ group unwanted. Perverse incentives.

And how does this money get spent anyway? Not very well, according to the Audit Commission who, in 2015, concluded that much of the spending of the sacred Pupil Premium (the payment for disadvantaged students) is of minimal value to these families and to the school performance in general. Evidence from a range of studies, from the Joseph Rowntree Organisation to the Sutton Trust, indicates that it is other factors that impact more negatively on life chances – health and parenting being two that are reaching chronically poor levels.

I would argue that schools in areas of ‘disadvantage’ need to direct more funds towards better nutrition, exercise, parenting and lifestyle, and particularly for children from 0-5 – if not the gap is already too wide by the time children start school. The importance of good people is crucial here. The Sutton Trust in its 2017 report on Social Mobility also emphasises the importance of quality teaching (I am associating good teaching with good people – the two are morally inseparable),

‘Teaching quality must be improved, particularly in disadvantaged schools. Teachers in the UK currently experience lower wages, longer working hours and have a less prestigious career than their peers in other developed countries. This needs to be reversed to attract and retain the most talented graduates into teaching.’

I agree, but I wish they hadn’t used the phrase ‘disadvantaged schools’ – that’s exactly what will put potential good teachers off!

So what to do?

Firstly, scrap the pupil premium – it is not new money and is only making the life of a headteacher more complicated and confusing. Yes, by all means use the census data to compensate those schools that are in areas of greater socio-economic hardship, but once the formula has been applied, trust headteachers to spend any extra money for the benefit of all their pupils, and then hold them to account through the inspection system. Headteachers must be freed from some of the most mind-bogglingly bureaucratic procedures ever invented, to account for each of the pupil premium payments. I just cannot believe this is what Nick Clegg had in mind when he invented the thing.

Digressing for a moment, our obsession with ensuring there is ‘value for money’ for the disadvantaged funding has led to some bizarre corrections to strategy in schools. I heard one the other day; a school had ordered all teachers to sit an ‘advantaged’ pupil next to a ‘disadvantaged’ pupil in a convoluted classroom set-up. Presumably, the disadvantaged pupil will imbibe this advantage by osmosis or something? I mean, do we really have SO little trust in our teachers now?

Secondly, divert the emphasis from individual parcels of money towards community-based parenting and health initiatives, by far the two greatest causes of inequality. Gordon Brown was on the right lines with the Sure Start initiative, and I’m dumbfounded that these Children’s Centres have been allowed to sink into the ground in most parts of the country. Whilst money diverted towards parental support is welcome, this is far more about culture and the pace of change in our society. Parenting is desperately difficult now – I struggle hugely myself – so we need welcome assistance through honest interactions with trusted people. But giving me £500 will do nothing to improve my ability to be a better parent.

Money alone will not solve it – support, advice and community-based partnerships stand a better chance, and schools should be leading on this, not bean-counting until 11pm at night. Douglas Alexander, in his excellent programme broadcast on Radio 4 last week – A Culture of Encounter – alluded to this step-chance; economic correction will not bring greater equity,  though it is a contributory factor. Regular, normal interactions between a myriad of groups and individuals will assist in reducing inequality, not forced and blunt intrusions from the state.

And finally, can we ban the word ‘disadvantaged’. It is one further example of the Trumpist binary language that has infected our world.

We are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged. We are people.



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