Reflections on day two of “Using the EEF toolkit to address disadvantage in coastal areas”

7 February 2018

Author: Chris Runeckles

On Tuesday this week 16 teachers from coastal schools met for the second time this year to reflect, discuss and consider how we can best use research evidence to address disadvantage in our contexts.  As with all our Durrington Research School training, the course has been spread across three days, one in each academic term.  Day one (the details of which can be read as a blog here) was primarily focused on initial discussions of key areas of challenge together with the EEF Toolkit strands of feedback and metacognition.  On this second day we spent time reflecting on work done up to this point and introduced new material on disadvantage, while also addressing parental involvement, attendance and literacy.

EEF day 2

The day started with delegates reflecting on the initial work carried out in their schools in the weeks and months since we had last met.  Developing this work we then asked participants to identify the challenges they had faced or could see on the horizon, based on their implementation plans, using the matrix shown.

Priority matrixWe then focused in particular on those challenges that were of high importance but relatively low difficultly to resolve, these were identified as:

  • Making disadvantaged students a priority.
  • Taking the students with us.
  • Training staff.
  • Improving attendance/punctuality.
  • Developing student understanding of concepts.

There was some debate as to the correct position of these challenges, and through this the common theme developed that context was all when prioritising where to start when attempting to tackle the thorny issue of disadvantage.

A fortuitous accident of the date of this course was opportunity to discuss the recently published EEF report The Attainment Gap which highlights what the EEF believes to be the key issues on disadvantage, and how analysis of them should inform practical work with teachers and senior leaders.  The report gives some excellent insights into the complex nature of the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

Some of the findings in the report make for chastening reading.  Most particularly that the gap in attainment is likely to with us for decades, that the gap is evident from students’ first experience with education in early years and that the gap increases the longer students are in education.  However, there are also glimmers of hope in the report.  There are hundreds of schools bucking the trend and achieving excellent outcomes with their disadvantaged cohorts (although some of this is particular to London and reflects the nature of the intake of these schools where EAL disadvantaged students perform particularly well).  Also the clear message is that the solution lies in improving the provision in the classroom, which echoes the message we have been giving through our training program.

The report concludes by giving 15 key lessons that the EEF have learnt through the work done in this area.  These are:

1. Early Years education has huge promise in preventing the attainment gap becoming entrenched before children start school. 2. What happens in the classroom makes the biggest difference. 3. Targeted small group and one-to-one interventions have the potential for the largest immediate impact on attainment.
4. The transition between phases of education – notably early years to primary, and primary to secondary – is a risk-point for vulnerable learners. 5. The challenge of improving post-16 attainment is a particular issue for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 6. Pupil Premium funding is a valuable focus to support senior leaders in raising the attainment of disadvantaged young people.
7. There is a strong appetite for educators to engage with and use evidence. 8. Robust and independent evaluation of high potential programmes is not only possible, but essential. 9. We know enough in key areas of teaching and learning to start making a positive difference now.
10. The £5 billion per year asset of teaching assistants can be deployed more effectively. 11. How a project is implemented is vital and arguably as important as its content. 12. Most programmes are no better than what schools are already doing
13. Catch up is difficult: we should aim to get it right first time round for all children. 14. Essential life skills (or ‘character’) are important in determining life chances and can be measured in a robust and comparable way. 15. Sharing effective practice between schools – and building capacity and effective mechanisms for doing so – is key to closing the gap.

We asked our delegates to prioritise these lessons based on those that would have the biggest impact on the work they did in their schools.  The most commonly chosen was lesson two, “What happens in the classroom makes the biggest difference”.  The next most popular choice was lesson one (reflecting the thoughts of our primary colleagues attending the course), “Early Years education has huge promise in preventing the attainment gap becoming entrenched before children start school.”  We also discussed the vulnerability of disadvantaged students during transition as a key area of focus and one many of us have not yet got right in our schools.

These lessons provide an excellent focus for any work done around disadvantage and can be used a first check for any interventions being planned.

The next section of the day concentrated on two areas that delegates had identified as of interest during day one: parental involvement and attendance.  Parental involvement is a strand of the toolkit where the evidence is less promising in terms of improving student achievement.  As it is put by the EEF:

Although parental involvement is consistently associated with pupils’ success at school, the evidence about how to increase involvement to improve attainment is mixed and much less conclusive. This is particularly the case for disadvantaged families…

…there is insufficient evidence to show that changing parents’ aspirations will raise their children’s aspirations and achievement over the longer term…

However, there are many other viable reasons for trying in increase parental involvement with schools, they are one of our key stakeholders and we have a duty to make every effort to involve them in the education of their children.  Our discussion at this point centred around why, despite the evidence, leaders may still pursue activities to make improvements in this area, and the key factors to consider when they did so, as shown below:

  1. Involvement is often easier to achieve with parents of very young children.
  2. What approaches will you take to support parents in working with their children?
  3. Have you provided a flexible approach to allow parental involvement to fit around their schedule?
  4. Parents of older children may appreciate short sessions at flexible times to involve them.
  5. How will you make your school welcoming for parents whose own experience of school may not have been positive?
  6. Have you provided some simple, practical ways that parents can support their children in ways that do not require a high level of ability (e.g. by ensuring that students have an environment where they can work at home)?

Leading on from this we focused on attendance, and a pilot project currently being trialled at Durrington where “nudge texts” are being used to improve attendance of disadvantaged year 10 students.  The original idea for this came from the book Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern.  The basic idea is to text students directly and focus on the use of positive language to encourage sustained improvement in attendance.  We are running the trial with an experimental group and a control group and while the results are at an early stage, the initial findings look promising.

Finally, Fran Haynes led a session focused on literacy.  Here she shared how she has interpreted the EEF Toolkit and wider research evidence to create a vocabulary-focused whole-school literacy policy.  Literacy

Literacy, as the graphic alongside shows, is a multi-faceted and often daunting problem to solve.  Fran explained how, in order to create a policy that works she has focus on explicit vocabulary instruction (a more detailed blog on this can be found here).  This is particularly beneficial to disadvantaged students as they are often word poor and therefore struggle to access much of what is communicated to them in schools.  She also explained the barrier the discourse used by teachers often provides disadvantaged students.  It is one they do not use outside of school (unlike some of their peers) and therefore can be difficult for them to interpret.  Fran also suggest the following further reading based on her own research in this area:

  • Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, McKeown and Kucan.
  • Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction, Gee.
  • Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools, Marzano.

After all of this input and discussion the final session of the day was for delegates to think about implementation.  We used a logic model to facilitate this planning with a view to how lessons from the day could best be applied in each context.  Day three will be less focused on new input and more on how these projects are taking hold, evaluating evidence that has been gathered and looking forward to the challenges still to be solved.

Posted on 7 February 2018
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