Exploring the construction of ‘disadvantage’ within English secondary schools.

Una Lodge, University of Birmingham.

I recently bought a greetings card with a quotation on it attributed to Charles Dickens: ‘An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.’  This chimed for me with the difficulties that I have been having in deciding how to approach the analysis of my research data, therefore I have used this blog to speak to my ideas a little, and to invite some questions that I hope will help me develop my thinking.

Where did I set off?

The initial thing that sparked my research was the way in which the word ‘disadvantaged’ is used in schools as an interchangeable term to describe students who qualify for the Pupil Premium.  Pupil Premium is allotted to schools based on the number of their students who have met the financial threshold for free school meals within the last six years and is therefore a proxy description of the socioeconomic status of these students.  Most people would agree that the material effects of poverty can disadvantage students in obvious ways such as poor and overcrowded housing, food poverty and lack of funds to buy computers or other school equipment.  However, the word ‘disadvantaged’ also seemed to me to carry with it potentially a weight of judgement and assumption that might be relevant to how this ‘problem’ of the ‘attainment gap’ was approached in school.

Concern about the attainment of ‘disadvantaged’ students has become more prominent during the pandemic and appropriate responses to ‘disadvantage’ in schools often seem to be taken for granted.  Education research is, understandably, oriented primarily towards policy suggestions – how we can make a positive change to the way in which children are educated.  When I speak to people about my research study, they tend to assume that I am focusing on identifying the most effective strategies and interventions to close the attainment gap between ‘disadvantaged’ students and their peers.  However, my focus is instead on the institution of the school, and specifically on how ideas of ‘disadvantage’ are constructed and perpetuated in school. A significant number of young people categorised in this way are not experiencing success in school, despite all the money that has gone into schools via the Pupil Premium over the last ten years. My aim is not to add to the voices blaming teachers for not doing their job well enough, but to stand back a little and consider the way in which ‘disadvantage’ is understood by teachers in their interactions with students, and to see whether this can tell us anything of interest about better ways to support all students in reaching their potential. 

How to approach making sense of it?

I knew from the beginning that my research did not fit into the predominant school effectiveness model, but I wasn’t sure exactly how else I was proposing to talk about it other than in a generally socially constructivist way.   Perhaps it is foolish to embark on empirical data collection without knowing how you intend to analyse your findings, but that is what I have done.  I think it is only by having some data in the form of interview transcripts that I have been able to really engage with the idea of analysis and to understand that the nature of what I believe that I can find out, is inextricably bound up with the method of analysis that I choose. 

My methodology involves interviewing a group of subject teachers and Pupil Premium leads in several different secondary schools and also analysing the Pupil Premium strategy documents from their schools.  I have completed ten interviews in two schools so far, so now, as I transcribe my interviews, I am thinking all the time about how best to make sense of them.  I could easily report that teachers say students are disadvantaged because their parents aren’t aspirational for them, that they don’t have the ‘cultural capital’ to thrive in the educational system, or they don’t have laptops at home – these views have surfaced repeatedly.  But the danger here is of slipping into an essentialism which presents these findings as ‘the truth’ about disadvantage.  I don’t want to report simply what teachers believe – or what they are willing to say to me (an interviewer they have never met before) about what they believe.  I respect these professionals and the insight that they bring from their experience, but the perceptions of individual teachers are not really what I am interested in. A phenomenological approach is not for me.  A Marxist analysis could focus on the aspects of material deprivation described by the teachers and how these structural factors impact on the experience of the young people coming into school, and the difficulty for schools and teachers in combatting the effects of this deprivation. Certainly, it will be important for me to think about how issues of social class and economic power are reproduced through the existing system.  Perhaps, as writers like Tomlinson (2012) would argue, it suits those who hold power to allow a significant number of young people – her ‘ignorant yobs’ – to fail in the system and thereby become the powerless fodder for a zero-hours economy. Whilst I find this a potentially plausible macroanalysis of society, I don’t find it very helpful as a way of thinking about what actually goes on in schools, day to day, for teachers and students.

As soon as I started conducting my interviews, I found myself fascinated not only by the content of what teachers told me, but by the way in which they said it.  I was struck, for example, by the repeated use of images of smallness and restriction to describe the lives of their students, and the use of the word ‘engagement’ as a catch-all term to express the performance of desired behaviours.  I knew that I needed a type of analysis that recognised the power of the actual words used.  I noticed too the characterisation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents in terms of their relationship to the requirements of the school and the way in which the teachers positioned themselves as potential saviours to their students.  Striking too was the contrast between the teachers’ emphasis on their personal response to students as individuals and the way in which discussion of achievement in school was framed in the language of exam success, with students being constituted in this discourse as units of data. There are so many different and competing discourses in operation here that are being ‘spoken’ through the teachers, and I realised an identification of these discourses and how I saw them operating in the school context (the discursive practices) was what I was interested in achieving. What I understand of Foucauldian discourse analysis seems to provide a means of thinking about the dominant discourses that I see emerging in my data so far and how these structure the relationships between the individuals concerned – teachers, students and parents. 

The discourses that are emerging from my data

It is perhaps not surprising that if you ask people about ‘disadvantage’ they are likely to respond in negative terms. As one teacher said, ‘the clue’s in the name’. Notwithstanding this, I have been struck by the characterisation of the students in terms of what they lack, despite the obvious care and feeling that is also present in the teacher’s talk. Sometimes these deficits are described in material terms, e.g. lack of equipment, IT resources, school uniform, but more often it is a lack of something less tangible – aspiration, cultural capital, confidence, resilience – that is mentioned.  Whilst teachers did not necessarily equate elements of disadvantage as situated within students in some kind of essential sense (they seemed keen to avoid appearing to stereotype), they did nevertheless see the identified deficits which the students brought with them into the school environment as the problem, rather than any aspect of school life being potentially disadvantaging to some students.  With my professional background in SEND and inclusion, this provoked interesting comparisons for me with the medical/social models of disability.

One of the strongest deficit discourses running through the interviews so far is that of the inadequate parent who fails to provide support.  Whilst this is usually expressed in terms of not supporting their children, often what seems to be meant is the they are not supporting the school.  The relationship between families and schools is a one-way process as represented in these interviews, with the teachers seeing the job of parents to turn up to parents’ evenings, get the students to do their homework, and give them the ‘right’ kind of educational experiences outside school.  One of the most common ways that teachers express how students are disadvantaged is by their parents ‘lack of aspiration’ for them.  If the parents fail in their duty to help create the ideal achieving student subject through these required behaviours, then they are classified as ‘unengaged’ parents, who are obstructing the will of the good school (which is trying to stop their children turning out like them).  

Another interesting discourse, which often becomes visible alongside reference to parenting deficits, is the perceived lack of ‘cultural capital’ referred to by teachers. The term ‘cultural capital’ has acquired a new life in school discourse since it was explicitly highlighted in the OFSTED framework for inspection in 2019.  It has grown away from Bourdieu’s critique of the stratifying reproduction of ‘high culture’ in educational settings, into a shorthand to describe the perceived deficits of language and experience equated with disadvantage.  Examples provided by teachers include not being read bedtime stories and not having visited places outside the students’ immediate home location.  The students and their families are ‘othered’ in these depictions, sometimes pitied, and invariably seen as in need of something that it seems that only the school can provide.  Whilst social class is never mentioned explicitly by teachers, it is hard not to perceive the zombie presence of class as identified by Diane Reay – the ‘troublesome un-dead of the English education system’ (2006).

It is these discourses of deficit which feed into the accompanying discourse of ‘saviour’ teacher, who has accepted their subject position to ‘hail’ the students into the school system. In their emotionally committed descriptions of their roles, I see many of these teachers pouring a huge amount of time and energy into the responsibility that they have accepted for turning the ‘bad’ unengaged student into the ‘good’ student (one who has accepted their subject position as a neo-liberal unit of successful data).  Whilst for some, this apparently rests on psychological beliefs about the transformative effects of individual personal relationships, others rest their hopes on an image of the neutral professional transmitting skills to students through their own skilled practice.

This is just a brief description of some of the discourses that I can see operating on/through/within the teachers that I have spoken to so far, and I know it will take a lot more thinking time before I begin to understand their effects.

Una Lodge is a part-time PhD researcher at UoB, in the third year of study.  Her professional background is as a primary school teacher, SENCo and local authority advisory teacher, and she now teaches on a range of programmes as part of the Inclusion and SEN team at the University of Northampton. 

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you for this, Una. As an autism researcher and parent of autistic children, I’m interested in your research on various levels. I have to admit that my ‘parent blame’ klaxon went off as soon as I read the title of your post so I wasn’t surprised when you explained later that this was a strong theme in your data. I’m interested in this thread of your study because it resonates with my own personal experiences of being a parent of disabled children. My children do not fall into the category of pupil premium but the themes of disadvantage and ‘problem parents’ are ones that play out all too often in my own life.
    You’re probably already aware of this but in case you missed it, Cerebra – the charity for children with brain conditions – recently published a report of their research with Prof Luke Clements at the University of Leeds into institutionalised parent blame in local authorities. The report centres predominantly on social care for disabled children but given the role LAs play in setting the wider social care agendas for schools, it may be relevant to your work: https://cerebra.org.uk/research/institutionalising-parent-carer-blame/
    Thanks again. Looking forward to reading more about your work.

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