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The catch-22 with defining disadvantage


The Department for Education’s Governance Handbook requires governing boards to “raise standards for all children … [including] … those receiving free school meals and those who are more broadly disadvantaged.”

While a seemingly straight forward duty, the inclusion of the word “disadvantage” is problematic. Even the experts struggle to define the term. In an academic paper exploring the concept, Thomas Kellaghan outlined that “disadvantage” is “broad and non-specific”, denoting a “complex phenomenon that results from the interaction of deep-seated economic, social, and educational factors.”

In this context, the requirement to “raise standards for … those who are more broadly disadvantaged” suddenly becomes a rather difficult ask for the governing board.

The social and political obstacles to defining disadvantage

Our latest research report, Spotlight on Disadvantage: The role and impact of governing boards in spending, monitoring and evaluating the pupil premium, revealed that many governing boards define disadvantage as “those eligible for the pupil premium”. This includes those pupils who have been eligible for free school meals in the last six years and those looked after by the local authority at any point in their lives. A “service premium”, which is often incorporated under the umbrella term of the “pupil premium”, is also given to schools for pupils whose parents serve, or have served, in the armed forces.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that these groups have worse outcomes than their peers. Furthermore, choosing finite parameters to define ‘disadvantage’ is undoubtedly an effective means of narrowing the term down to something more meaningful and measurable.

A persuasive counterargument is that defining ‘disadvantage’ simply as those eligible for the pupil premium risks excluding pupils who face significant barriers to educational achievement but do not necessarily qualify for the funding. For instance, this definition ultimately misses other variables which affect whether a pupil is likely to achieve high educational outcomes, including, but not limited to, parental education level, parental occupation, geographical location, neighbourhood deprivation, whether a child has low prior attainment, whether a child speaks English as an additional language, and whether a child has special educational needs.

Compounding this issue, if a pupil qualifies for the pupil premium on paper, but their family does not register them for FSMs (for whatever reason, including social pressure) they will not be eligible for the funding. A study conducted by the DfE in 2012 found that 14% of eligible pupils were not claiming FSMs and, therefore, were not attracting pupil premium funding for their school. More recently, in 2016, the Children’s Food Trust found that the “proportion of eligible pupils who received free lunches had dropped from nearly 87% to 83% in the course of a year”.

Finally, defining disadvantage is particularly difficult as some groups are more disadvantaged than others. In this regard, disadvantage may be seen as a complex spectrum. Evidence suggests that those children who are persistently disadvantaged (which, disproportionally, are children in the north of England), are more likely to face negative consequences of their social situation than those who ‘dip’ in and out of disadvantage depending on family circumstances. Furthermore, evidence shows that, on average, those from white British backgrounds who are eligible for the pupil premium are generally more affected by disadvantage than those with English as an additional language.

All of these reasons are why many in the research community argue that pupil premium eligibility is too much of a ‘blunt instrument’ and should not be used as the primary indicator of disadvantage. Interestingly, such an indicator is by no means universally recognised in the international community. For instance, in contrast to England, the Netherlands focus solely on the education level of parents to distribute funds to disadvantaged pupils.

What scope do the governing board have to rethink disadvantage?

Given these arguments, schools can be forgiven for choosing their own views of disadvantage beyond the parameters of the “pupil premium”. Indeed, 14% of governors/trustees that responded to the NGA Spotlight on Disadvantage survey explained that their school included several other criterion beyond pupil premium eligibility within their definition of disadvantage.

In truth, any attempt to provide a concrete definition of a “disadvantaged child” is politically problematic. Defining what makes a “disadvantaged pupil” and what makes a “non-disadvantaged pupil” is a value-laden judgement with social and policy implications; inevitably excluding certain vulnerable groups at the expense of others while risking the stigmatisation of those considered disadvantaged.

So where does this leave governing boards in their obligation to “raise standards for … those who are more broadly disadvantaged”? Well, defining disadvantage is somewhat of a catch-22. No definition will completely suffice, yet failing to establish clear parameters restricts the schools’ ability to focus their support towards the most vulnerable groups.

This brings us full circle and, inevitably, it raises the question: is pupil premium eligibility really that bad a definition of disadvantage on a national level? It is far from perfect, but there is indisputable evidence showing that pupils who are eligible for the pupil premium have worse outcomes than those that are not eligible.

In this respect, governing boards may be better off viewing the pupil premium as a systematic attempt to combat disadvantage on a national scale rather than something designed to combat all types and manifestations of disadvantage in each individual school. Regardless of whether there are other types of disadvantaged, governing boards need to show that the pupils for whom the premium is intended are making progress. If the government deem pupil premium funding to be having little impact on eligible pupils, schools may not be receiving the funding by the end of this parliament.

This still does not mean that the governing board cannot rethink disadvantage outside of the pupil premium. At an individual school level, the Spotlight on Disadvantage survey revealed that 46% of the governing boards surveyed allocated funding above and beyond the pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils. Here, the governing boards have more freedom and should not feel pressurised to accept a definition of disadvantage which does not fit the context of their school.

Ultimately, the term ‘disadvantaged’ is value laden and inseparable from the context it finds itself in. Therefore, those closest to the school are best placed to know what type of ‘disadvantage’ their pupils face. In regards to disadvantage not covered through the pupil premium, as the individuals that know their school(s) best and the community it serves, governing boards and senior leaders are entitled to say to others: “while that definition of disadvantage might work for you, it does not work for us”.