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What strategies can we employ to address educational inequality?

In week 1 of this blog series we dissected the patterns of attainment for disadvantaged learners, revealing a substantial gap that persists despite decades of policy attention. The attainment divide extends to various factors, including social classes, gender, and ethnicity. The blog highlighted the 'London effect,' where the GCSE performance gap is smaller in London schools.


Week 2 delved deeper into the complex web of factors contributing to educational inequality. The research uncovers an interplay between pupil-level factors, the home environment, and school influences.

Moving forward, this weeks blog focuses on solutions and interventions to address these challenges and bridge the educational divide.

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The contents of this blog are based on a systematic review of the research conducted by Capsule Research for Big Education who have been working on the ‘Inequalities in Education’ project co-funded by Bath and North East Somerset Council and St John’s Foundation.

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Let's begin...

Education is a powerful tool for social mobility, yet disparities in educational outcomes persist, often disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities. In this comprehensive review, we explore a myriad of recommendations and strategies aimed at addressing educational disadvantage at various levels – systemic, institutional, and individual. The insights provided are based on an extensive examination of existing literature, and while not exhaustive, they offer a starting point for a more in-depth exploration of effective interventions.

1. A Holistic System-Level Approach

“Look at the education system as a whole. Educational inequalities start early in life, but every stage of

the system plays a role in shaping – and reducing – inequality. Reforms to the education system should consider the entire system, including how different stages interact. Targets that focus only on one stage of education can store up problems elsewhere in the system. (Farquharson et al, 2022). “


Educational inequalities are complex and multifaceted, beginning early in a child's life. It is crucial to address these disparities across all stages of the education system. The success of the London school system demonstrates the impact of a cultural shift, highlighting the importance of motivated staff, effective leadership, data-driven decision-making, and collaboration between schools. Programs like City Challenge played a pivotal role in catalysing this positive transformation.

Recommendations for system leaders include recruiting head teachers with a long-term view of school improvement, fostering collaboration with health and social care services, and ensuring that schools support pupils with behavioural or conduct problems. Additionally, addressing pupil mobility requires effective local collaboration and communication, emphasising community engagement.

1.2 Early Intervention

Early intervention is vital to addressing attainment gaps. Family Hubs, particularly for disadvantaged families, and high-quality Early Education and Childcare (EEC) programs have proven effective in improving cognitive outcomes, language, and literacy in the early years. La Valle and Jones, 2020 state that numerous studies in the UK and elsewhere have shown the importance of good-quality Early Education and childcare (EEC) in improving language and literacy, numeracy and other cognitive outcomes in the Early Years. Research has also shown the positive impact of good EEC on boosting children’s confidence and social, emotional and physical outcome as well as playing an important role in motivating and supporting parents to engage in shared reading activities with their children. Research has found that programmes that combine long exposure and high dosage (i.e., hours per week) had a considerable positive impact on children’s cognitive and behavioural outcomes, particularly for children from low-income families (Dartington Service Design Lab, 2018, cited in La Valle and Jones, 2020).


Overall access to childcare is still lower than it could be. For example, A recent study has found that take-up of the free entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-old children is still lower than average among children from ethnic minorities and families where English is a second language and lower than average participation levels are associated with high area deprivation levels, low family income and non-working households (La Valle and Jones, 2020).


The literature also shows a strong connection between parenting in the Early Years and attainment at Key Stage 1. The evidence shows, for example, that the quality of parenting behaviours and parent–child interactions have a greater effect on children’s outcomes than parental education level and family income (Asmussen et al., 2019; Dartington Service Design Lab, 2018 cited in La Valle and Jones). The parent–child relationship should therefore be considered as a primary site for intervention.

Law et al. (2017) conclude that income-related gaps in children’s early language cannot be rectified simply through changes in family income and that policies and practices must also address factors affecting the quality of the home learning environment. Furthermore, they contend that ‘increasing family access to enriching resources, such as books, toys and educational experiences, is unlikely to be sufficient. Strategies should also support the quality of parent–child interaction, including the quality of conversations parents have with their children’ and ‘strategies should start early, certainly before children enter preschool and preferably before children are 2 years old.’


Research by Dartington Service Design Lab, 2018 cited in by La Valle and Jones (2020) concludes that the extent to which parents engage positively with their children can be determined by their knowledge of child development and ‘it may be worthwhile providing parents and carers with information about how the nature of parenting practices can influence child outcomes and how much difference they can make to their children’s future.’



2. School-Level Strategies

A study commissioned by the Department for Education (DFE) identified seven building blocks for success in raising the attainment of disadvantaged students. These include promoting an ethos of attainment for all, individualised approaches to barriers, prioritising high-quality teaching, focusing on outcomes, deploying the best staff, data-driven decision-making, and having clear, responsive leadership.

Outstanding schools share similar strategies, emphasising rigorous data monitoring, effective feedback, high-quality teaching, visionary leadership, and active parental engagement. Secondary schools, in particular, should focus on KS3, set high expectations for all pupils, and prioritise support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Shaw et al, 2017 informs us of a qualitative study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which looked at good practice in secondary schools with large numbers of low income pupils attaining well at GCSE. This study also found that effective schools tended to be those that:

  • ·       Used data effectively to direct resources towards particular pupils,

  • ·       Held high expectations of success for every pupil (regardless of background), 

  • ·       Were focused on recruiting and developing high quality teachers, 

  • ·       Actively attempted to engage parents,

  • ·       And, worked to support pupils’ social and emotional development (SMCPC 2014).

The literature also promotes that schools use targeted support and interventions. For example, effective targeted interventions focused on raising aspiration; increasing engagement through vocational programmes such as the Increased Flexibilities Programme and work-related learning opportunities at Key Stage 4; targeted literacy support, such as after school homework clubs; support for behavioural issues through nurture groups and mentoring; support to build self-esteem and confidence and parental education or engagement programmes, for example literacy classes with or without their child, parenting advice courses or employing family support workers; and helping children from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher educational outcomes (Goodman and Gregg, 2010).

Demie and Lewis, 2014 highlight the effectiveness of positive interactions with parents in order to address their own possible negative experience of schooling (a practical example being the practice of calling five parents a week to share positive things about their children).

It would be impossible to set out in detail all of the strategies and best practice touched on in the literature and therefore it is useful to be aware of EEF Toolkit which details over 8000 research studies which identify high-impact interventions and techniques and covers around 33 topics.



3. Individual Pupil-Level Strategies

3.1 Mental Health and Wellbeing

“Education is not just about test scores… outcomes from the education system matter too – children’s broader ‘soft skills’, their mental health and resilience, their physical health, their social and emotional development, and their ability to successfully navigate the challenges they will face in the workforce and in their lives are all important and deserve to be considered alongside knowledge and skills when making major decisions about the education system.” (Farquharson et al, 2022)

To this end, UK Parliament, 2022 assert that all school must ensure they have a “designated mental health lead or counsellor. All catch-up plans, including enrichment activities and longer school days, must include a specific role for activities that focus on mental health and wellbeing.”

Strategies and interventions to promote emotional wellbeing and mental health include: skills-oriented interventions which are effective in improving social and emotional skills and enhance self-perception; therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which can help address depression and anxiety; art therapy that encourages students to explore and articulate their emotions (including visual arts and dance, for example); and strategies to deal with bullying and behavioural problems (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). Hart and Green (2012) refer to a ‘Resilience Framework’ which supports schools to identify strategies and interventions that can be used to support pupils to achieve academically despite any personal adversity.

3.2 Positive Neurodevelopment

Building warm and trusting relationships is essential for resilient development in children. Early intervention, such as parent-infant psychotherapy, supports children who have experienced trauma. Community and outside services play a vital role in promoting resilience, emphasising the importance of Early Education and Childcare (EEC) in transformative education.

In the Early Years, La Valle and Jones’ (2020) review looked at a range of interventions to support parents to develop a nurturing relationship with their child, which ranged from light touch information programmes to group parenting programme and more intensive one to one support. The more intensive and tailored the support, the bigger the impact, with for example, parent–infant psychotherapy when children have experienced trauma (e.g., abuse, neglect) found to have a positive impact on a child’s behaviour, attachment security and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Acknowledging that some parents may not themselves be in a position to focus on attachment with their child, the literature (Asmussen et. al, 2020, Oppenheim, 2022) also emphasised the role of the community and outside services in promoting the resilience of the child and supporting the development of secure relationships between the child and other trusted adults outside of the home. This, Oppenheim (2022) maintains can provide the nurturing care and protection from stressors that parents may not be a position to provide and support the child’s physical and emotional development. In this way, they believe that Early Education and Childcare (EEC) can be transformative.

3.3 Aspiration

Education Select Committee, 2014 cites research that suggests that working class children do not necessarily have low aspirations, but they are significantly less likely to see schooling as instrumental to achieving them (this would seem to be supported by the finding that white working-class performance reduces rapidly between age 14-16 when exams are taking place). This is an important point because if indeed the issue does relate more to their belief system and preferences than to aspiration, then students may be lacking knowledge on alternative progression routes which also require a good level of attainment (such as apprenticeships). 


Interestingly Pullen (2022) contends that the current definition of success for young people is too narrow and defined by meritocracy (e.g., we can all achieve the same amount with the same 24 hours) and human capital theory (e.g., more education means more wealth, Mincer, 1974) and results in orthodox concepts as success such as staying in school, attending university, getting a good, well paid graduate job. She argues that this kind of success is easier for young people from higher social classes and therefore creates a group of ‘angry failures’ who can see academic work as negative. Instead, she argues that measuring success based on prioritising subjective wellbeing is more inclusive and is less likely to create a success/failure mentality than meritocracy. In her research, Pullen looked at the aspirations of those who were categorised as’ academic’ (achieving Level 3 qualifications by age 24) and those who were categorised as ‘applied’ (achieving Level 2 by age 24). Those from the applied group were significantly less likely to have had orthodox expectations and aspirations at age 13/14, significantly more likely to want to study and do something they enjoy, be their own boss, and significantly less likely to just wait and see where they end up (i.e., they have future plans). Those from the applied group were significantly more likely to have good mental health aged 25, be self-employed, consider themselves an adult and to be fully mature. They have greater autonomy and feelings of competence than those in the academic group. Yet, Pullen asserts “society imposes different aspirations on them, and assumes they are ‘failures’ for not aspiring to stay in school and go to university. Then later for not being an employee and not being a higher earner. She concludes that “Redefining success could stop resentment from those who do not fit orthodox definitions of success”.


Students should have access to clear information about various routes, and civil society organisations can contribute to building social capital and providing positive role models.

3.4 Academic Self-Concept

Interventions that develop academic possible selves and highlight in-group role models can reduce socioeconomic attainment gaps. A sense of belonging positively correlates with attitudes toward school and predictive attainment.

3.5 Lessons Specific to Ethnic Groups

Understanding the unique needs of different ethnic groups is essential. Collecting and reviewing data on pupils, adapting curricula and pastoral strategies, encouraging high expectations for all ethnic groups, employing local role models, and fostering community engagement contribute to narrowing disparities.

Mongon et al., 2008, cite a review of fifty schools from some of the most deprived wards in England (DCSF, 2008) with a track record of success with their white working-class pupils. The review found that these schools: have dynamic leaders with strong systems for quality assuring the curriculum and pupil progress (particularly through the use of data); have high expectations for all students and address disengagement at the earliest opportunity; shape the curriculum to serve the needs of their intake; go out of their way to bring in role models (so that pupils can see that success is possible for people from their walk of life); prepare students for unfamiliar environments and the wider world; define non-negotiable standards of behaviour and a culture of mutual respect (applied to teachers as well as students); provide cultural opportunities beyond the budget of local families; talk about local concerns with pupils each day; and learn how to meet, greet and converse in ways that are not patronising. These schools empathise with the local community and local values, value the active involvement of parents and the community in their children’s education, and ‘work harder’ than other schools to provide rewards and incentives to pupils.


Perry and Francis, 2010 also emphasise the need to focus on vocational routes (for example, apprenticeships) as well as academic routes in order to better engage the White working class.


The literature would seem to suggest that poverty and its impact on child development and behaviour is a key driver of inequality by the time children arrive in Reception classes with parenting as a strong intermediary factor. By the time a child is at secondary school a much wider range of personal, practical and school level factors are at play. It has also become clear that some groups (particularly deprived minatory ethnic groups) can ‘buck the trend’ due to personal agency factors. It’s become apparent throughout this review that the individuals least likely to buck the trend of low attainment associated with the FSM group are most likely to be white working class boys or girls and black Caribbean working class boys. Addressing educational disadvantage requires a multifaceted and collaborative approach.


The literature has clearly indicated that both structural and pupil level factors have a far greater impact on the attainment of the FSM group and  schools are not the direct cause, However, the fact that a child’s emotional, behavioural and social wellbeing will be influenced by time spent within school suggests that schools can and should have a role in overcoming many of these challenges.


Given the importance of prior attainment, and evidence that major inequalities can develop by the age of three (Oppenheim, 2022) early intervention should be a key area of focus, as well as interventions and strategies that address key issues across the full educational career.


This review highlights strategies at the systemic, school, and individual levels. By implementing evidence-based interventions, fostering collaboration, and continually adapting strategies, stakeholders can work towards creating an inclusive education system that empowers every student to reach their full potential.


Below we summarise the key issues affecting attainment amongst FSM pupils followed by a summary table of interventions we have so far gleamed form the literature.

Next week we will be looking at what Bath and North East Somerset Council (in partnership with St Johns Foundation and Big Education) are doing to introduce some of the strategies included in this review.

  TABLE 1: Summary of key issues affecting the FSM group at pupil, school and system level




  • Mental health and Wellbeing

  • Poor physical development (e.g., motor skills, dexterity)

  • Diagnosed or Undiagnosed developmental disorder or special need (e.g., neurodiversity, attention deficit, sensory issues, learning difficulties or other SEN)

  • Self-confidence around their ability to learn

  • Lack of Independent learning skills

  • Language and communication skills

  • English as a second/additional language (EAL)

  • Behaviour/self-regulation/emotional skills of PP pupils 

  • Parent involvement in or supporting education of their child

  • Low aspirations held by of Pupil Premium pupils

  • Low aspirations for them held by their family

  • Don’t believe they need to achieve academically to succeed in life

  • Low expectation amongst PP pupils regarding their future options/outcomes (e.g., they do not expect to do well or apply for A-levels so do not try)

  • Challenges at home (e.g., poor housing, ill health in the family, poor home learning environment etc)

  • Trauma or adverse childhood experiences (e.g., domestic abuse)

  • Frequent mobility between schools

  • Time/effort given to homework

  • Behaviour/self-regulation within the school more generally (including bullying)

  • Low expectations from staff

  • Quality of teaching

  • Poor information, advice and guidance

  • SLT approach to PP pupils

  • Poor data tracking at school level


  • Poor prior performance

  • Poor support at Year 6 to 7 transition

  • Neighbourhood/community impact (e.g., risky behaviours, peer pressure)

  • Poor post-16 options locally

  • Poor employment options locally

  • Lack of funding for this group of pupils



TABLE 2: Summary of strategies to address inequality at pupil, school and system level




·       Promote parent-child nurturing and educational interactions & raise awareness of its importance specifically in the EY and into Primary school (e.g. light touch information programmes,  group parenting programmes and more intensive one to one support.


·       Increase family access to learning resources


·       Strategies and interventions to promote emotional wellbeing and mental health


·       Improve  the nutritional intake in school through breakfast clubs, curriculum content and counselling.


·       Develop warm and trusting relationships to promote resilient development and opportunities for co-regulation.


·       Support for behavioural issues through nurture groups and mentoring


·       Consider the way in which staff frame and perceive aspirations, consider the impact of a ‘middle class ethos’ -  interventions should respect student preferences


·       Provide early and regular careers guidance that makes clear the links between progress at school and opportunities post-16


·       Promote an ethos of high attainment for all pupils


·       Use rigorous monitoring of data to identify pupils for early intervention.


·       Focus on high quality teaching first rather than on bolt-on strategies


·       Deploy the best staff to support disadvantaged pupils; ensure they know them well.


·       Work with parents to  increase engagement and understand the aspirations they hold for their child (inc. addressing their own possible negative experience of schooling).


·       Exercise caution in using streaming practices that can negatively impact on low income pupils



·       Targeted interventions to raise aspiration and inform pupils of vocational routes.



·       Be aware of EEF Toolkit which details over 8000 research studies which identify high-impact interventions


·       Support teachers to identify children who struggle with attention and mental flexibility


·       Work with civil society organisations, such as youth clubs and youth services, to build social capital and provide positive role models for disadvantaged young White people



·       Schools, LAs & MATS to work together to identify solutions & share capacity, knowledge and motivation to implement change.


·       Expert support at systems level (e.g National and Local Leaders of Education (NLE/LLEs)


·       Support for teaching and learning including the Outstanding Teacher and Improving Teacher Programmes


·       Recruit head teachers who take a long-term view of school improvement


·       Work closely with regional health and social care services


·       MATs to offer a variety of specialist services that meet the needs of pupils with behavioural or conduct problems


·       Ensure that all schools prioritise quality-first teaching and high-quality specialist provision for low income pupils with SEND


·       Collaboration to support in-year transitions and KS2 to KS3 transition.


·       LA to inform parents of risks associated with in-year mobility.


·       Family Hubs are made best use of to support families to navigate the system.


·       Support access to EEC – promote entitlements






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