Why ‘disadvantaged’ is a blanket term that may be doing more harm than good, from Nic Ponsford.

I cannot stand the word ‘disadvantage’. I cannot abide it and will often have to focus on freezing my facial muscles when I hear it, so I do not roll my eyes or explode in a Zoom meeting. After two decades of teaching in some of the most deprived areas of England, working on educational inclusion for educational charities, creating grassroots teacher groups, sitting on regional and national boards for teachers, families and students, leading on DfE inclusive tech programmes, qualifying as a Pupil Premium Quality Lead, being a regional coach to SENDCos, leading whole-school CPD and researching the topic, I think it is now time to kick ‘disadvantage’ to the kerb.

And I want you to join me. Why? Because I believe the word ‘disadvantage’ creates more issues than it solves.

 

What’s the problem?

Reflect for a moment on the term. ‘Disadvantaged’ is used by the government to define ‘Free School Meal’ students (low income) and ‘Looked After Children’ (children in care or adopted). But if you look in a dictionary, it translates as “unfavourable conditions or circumstances”. 1

So, let’s flip this for a moment. If we have ‘disadvantaged’ students, we must also have ‘advantaged’. As teachers, when we speak about ‘disadvantaged students’, there is also the element of acknowledging our own ‘advantage’ too – how we are different from this, apart from this group. We distance ourselves from them, we talk from a position of advantage – of privilege. We are building this perspective, this bias, into our schools through our treatment and practice of how we support and educate.

Disadvantage encompasses a multitude of inequalities. People are not just disadvantaged. There are people who have a low socio-economic status (but might not) which includes poor health (long or short term), unstable employment, low income and poverty (unsurprisingly in terms of the current situation), unstable housing situation, chaotic and/or overcrowded family life (including not enough beds/space for the children to eat or sleep, let alone complete homework), changing parent/carer status, domestic violence, addictions, stress in the home, bilingual or have English as an additional language to their mother tongue. And then there are the protected characteristics of The Equality Act (2010). Our disadvantaged students may experience one or all these inequalities, for part of or for their entire lives.

I hear teachers also now regularly using this term to describe all children with a disability or additional needs, including physical and/or mental health issues. Do we really mean ‘unfavourable’ and at a dis-advantage in life, or are we saying they are at a disadvantage in our existing school system? If we fast-forward to the future, I believe we will look back and see this time as ‘the age of diversity’ – the age that the system changed. The question is: who will drive this? By using the term ‘dis-advantage’ what we are really doing is clubbing together people who are struggling, damaged, underprivileged and under-resourced.

We are using a ‘band-aid’ term without really acknowledging where the pain and the damage is, what it looks like and how, most importantly, we can serve as educators.

Conclusions

This leads me to two conclusions.

Why are we creating an otherness to our students and not calling it what it is in order to help find solutions? Too hard? Not enough time? Not enough resources? All nonsense as far as I can determine, as by not creating solutions, pathways and opportunities, and by not helping, we are in fact creating more issues down the line, either in education or society as a whole. Many of the factors that we define as ‘disadvantaged’, we as teachers have lived experiences in – thus, making us ‘disadvantaged’ too, right? Isn’t it time that we also looked at how we can serve our ‘disadvantaged’ teachers better as well as our students?

This article, ‘The Inequity of Exams – How our assessment system perpetuates harmful stereotypes about disadvantaged groups’, illustrates how far we have not considered ‘disadvantage’ in our educational system based on exams as a measure of attainment and aspiration. We have thought about how it suits ‘advantaged’ people – like many of us who have not only excelled in academia and education, but we have also enjoyed it and made it our profession – and have blindsided those who are disadvantaged. In this age of diversity and inclusion, how can we expect neurodiverse students to sit in a hall and engage with paper-based exams and have the same ‘advantage’ as those who are dyslexic (colour layovers, offered technology like Immersive Reader or Helperbird), autistic (and have to be in a new room, with crowds of people around them and answer questions in stressful time limits, with unfamiliar chairs, seating layouts and smells) or those who did not sit down to a breakfast in their 2.4 family.

“Why less inequality benefits us all”, as the OECD has recently published. In an educational state system arguably built on the foundations of grammar schools and universities before the Welfare State system in the 1870s, education is meant to be for the benefit of all – but are we still blind to the needs of our students? How can we be unreactive to how we build accessibility into curriculums and assessment? Worse than this, we are waiting for someone else to take the lead, and we are simply not reacting fast enough. This is where we need to dismantle some of the language we are using in education and, for real clarity, break down what we are talking about. We need to understand the lived experiences of our students and the gap between our own privileges – and help close those gaps with opportunities, for not just social mobility for university, but social justice for our students.

Takeaways

  • Review what you mean by the term ‘disadvantage’ in your setting. What factors are you really referring to and what can you do to help support solutions, using internal and external support and training?
  • Seek support from organisations such as ours.
  • Consider how technology can support equity in your setting. Accessible technology for all (staff and students), collecting the ‘voice’ of your school, using data to drive change or preparing your learners as global citizens and for the #TheFutureOfWork are all ways you can embed inclusion into your organisations.

Author

  • Nicole Ponsford

    Nic is passionate about creating a level playing field for everyone in education, but especially those from underserved groups. After 20 years working in education, Nic set up the Global Equality Collective (GEC) to address one of the biggest issues in education; - culture, diversity and inclusion.
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