On disadvantage

The narrative around disadvantaged children and families is frequently one of lack, of loss, of needing something more – something better. I’ve found it difficult over the years to articulate precisely why this framing feels so irksome to me – a disadvantaged child who grew up to be a teacher – but I’ve tried to in a few blog posts. I’ve never felt like I’ve really nailed what I want to say, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to. This, I think, is probably because articulating disadvantage is profoundly complex. It’s not just a form we fill in, a seating plan with PP kids sitting at the front (please don’t do this), a breakfast club or a sympathetic nod. For many of us in education, it’s also tangled into an intricate web of our own experiences as disadvantaged children, of our own education, and, for me, how I could have easily been labelled as ‘disadvantaged’ but how I was also anything but.

This post has been spurred by some tweets last week from a conference where Olivia Taylor gave a great speech articulating her thoughts about growing up as a disadvantaged child and the language we use as teachers that frames ‘disadvantage’. I wasn’t at the conference but I’m grateful to Emma Kell for giving Olivia the opportunity to share her speech again. I watched it here. I agree with much of what Olivia says, and my experiences as a child echo some of hers. There was a winding sucker-punch of recognition as I listened: I too used duct tape to fix my shoes when I was at school. That sort of experience grinds itself into you: no matter how much the memory fades, you’re bludgeoned by echoes.

Olivia prefers the term ‘under-served’ to ‘disadvantaged’. I think I understand where she’s coming from, and I get that there is a system-wide issue here. But I’m unconvinced that swapping the term ‘disadvantaged’ for ‘under-served’ does anything other than shuffle one deficit term for another in a pack of deficiency-labelled playing cards. But yes, the term ‘disadvantaged’ is rubbish. I don’t think any labels are helpful. Thankfully, when I was at school, I was not labelled. I could have been ‘Free school meals Claire Stoneman’ or ‘Disabled parents Claire Stoneman’ or ‘Young carer Claire Stoneman’. I am forever grateful to my school for not making assumptions about me, other than the assumption that I could and would achieve.

For me – and I fully accept that this is entirely personal – the discourse that followed online about disadvantaged/under-served was shufflingly uncomfortable: yes! ‘under-served’ is spot-on; no! ‘under-served’ isn’t right. I’ve thought a lot about why it made me feel so uncomfortable: it felt that there’s something inauthentic about us – teachers, head teachers, CEOs, policy-makers – discussing what term is best used when we’re discussing those who have no agency in the discourse. And for me (and I’m sure others) it’s doubly-complicated: I feel part of a world where disadvantage once made me hungry, and embarrassed, and tenacious – it formed who I am; and yet I’m also removed from that world – I am not now ‘disadvantaged’, so what right have I to comment or assume? For many of us who have grown up in a working-class ‘disadvantaged’ community – and one which was actually richly, richly advantaged in innumerable ways – I still feel on the periphery of discourse like this, existing in a liminal space between two worlds, neither of which I’m sure I fully know.

In an attempt to navigate this discourse, we scrabble for language. I’m not sure there is a suitable term for ‘disadvantaged’, and ‘under-served’ rattles me. I was not, in any way, under-served by my parents, by my school, or by my supposedly ‘disadvantaged’ community. I do not intend to go into any detail here about that. If you want my take, you can read about it here, here, and here. Instead, I want to focus on this: we need to challenge our thinking about disadvantage.

It is pretty much impossible to be completely clear about who is or isn’t disadvantaged in our schools, despite definitions: the edges of what could constitute ‘disadvantage’ are blurred and nebulous. There are plenty of advantaged children who have parents in well-paid jobs, but who are also, for various reasons, disadvantaged. There are also children who are growing up with little money in difficult circumstances but who are loved and cherished – who are, for wont of a better term, advantaged in that sense, but disadvantaged in others. ‘Disadvantage’ is slippery and nebulous: it does not hold still. We can pin it down to a point, but then it tussles out of reach. If we’re not careful, we ruminate and cogitate about terms so much that we become gripped by linguistic inertia instead of focusing on getting the day job right: teaching all our kids bloody well. Labels are unhelpful. Last week’s debate on Twitter about labels was frustratingly cyclical. Maybe we, erm, just don’t use them? My school has a very high percentage of children who are ‘disadvantaged’. But they all – every single one of them – advantage our school: they enrich it with life and joy and meaning and purpose.

Of course we need to know who our children are who live in difficult circumstances, often in poverty. Of course we need to know our looked-after children. Of course we need to know our children with SEND. We need to know all our children. All our children are brimming with promise, possibility, light and life. We should assume that every single child has potential, that every single child brings something to the table, and we should wrestle ourselves away from the limitations of labels. How about we, as we always do, support and support and support – and that we also, very explicitly, assume and expect that all our kids bring with them something to contribute and that they can all succeed? Because if we’re not careful we stoke disadvantage, whatever that disadvantage might be, with poverty of expectation. Deficit language can do one. I’m not swapping one deficit term for another. I’m just not having it.