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Focusing on children’s potential, not labels

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As a former teacher, this key finding from a report on social mobility produced by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, struck me:

“Some teachers’ expectations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are too low."

This made me reflect on the pretty worrying statistics I heard at Achievement for All’s National Conference, which I attended earlier this term. Virginia Beardshaw, CEO of I Can, suggested that children from families on a low income start school 16 months behind their peers from better off backgrounds in terms of their vocabulary.

Professor Sonia Blandford, founder of Achievement for All, said 20% of those children born in the year 2000 are at risk of being not in employment, education or training (NEET).

So how can schools increase the life chances of these pupils?

Make good use of the pupil premium

Sir John Dunford, the government’s National Pupil Premium Champion, stressed the large amount of money that has been committed. We must make sure it is used to make a genuine difference to these children’s life chances. He said the best use of pupil premium funding comes from working out what you want to achieve and your success criteria before thinking about your strategies. Sonia Blandford also emphasised that schools must focus on outcomes in order to achieve “true integration, not integrated segregation”.

Sir John added that quality of teaching should always be the first concern - but schools should look outwards at excellent practice in other schools, rather than upwards at the government. Here at The Key we've been working hard over the last year to gather case studies of excellent practice from teaching schools across the country to help with this. Members of The Key for School Leaders can log in to read the articles published.

Stop labelling children

A key theme of the conference was that while the diagnosis of special educational needs or awareness of a pupil’s difficult background can be helpful, defining these children by the challenges they face is not.

During one discussion the panellists agreed that labelling children is at best of limited value, and at worst self-fulfilling. If you’re constantly told that you struggle with something, you probably will. Labels describe the past - they need not accurately predict the future. Having consistently high expectations of pupils, regardless of their label or group, is crucial for them to succeed.

In the afternoon, I was surprised to see Henry Winkler’s name on the agenda. He’s best known as The Fonz in Happy Days (or the author of the Hank Zipzer books depending on your age!). However, I soon realised why he was invited. He highlighted perfectly how in his life a diagnosis was helpful, but being labelled was damaging.

Henry spoke about how his self-esteem was destroyed as a child by being labelled as dumb and lazy by his parents and teachers. There was only one teacher who told him he’d be okay. He didn’t read a book until he was 31, after being diagnosed as dyslexic and realising he wasn’t stupid after all. Now an author of more than 25 books, he’s a great witness to the importance of high expectations and resilience, no matter what challenges you’re facing.

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