Four challenges facing school leaders working in disadvantaged areas

Jan. 7, 2019
Tuesday Humby

Tuesday Humby

Executive Principal and Regional Director for the North at Ormiston Academies Trust

As school leaders, it is our responsibility to close the gap for disadvantaged pupils.

To achieve this aim, it is essential that we understand the varied contexts of our pupils, and the specific challenges they present. I have identified four areas where leaders can expect to encounter these challenges and here I share my thoughts on how to address them.


A big challenge for schools that predominantly serve areas of very high social deprivation is factoring in what your pupils may have experienced before they come to you. It is important that we remind ourselves to not take anything for granted; our children will not all have had similar opportunities and this can have a profound effect on their learning.

I have heard this perception described as ‘social and cultural cumulative dysfluency’, but I believe it was put best by a primary headteacher I heard speaking at an Ambition School Leadership event. In her speech, she outlined the following scenario:

“So we ask little Billy, who is on free school meals and has never been to the beach, to write about a day at the beach and wonder why he only got a 2b compared to little Susan, who goes to Cornwall annually, who got a 4a.”

This really made me think about the assignments we set our pupils and to what extent they test for privilege over ability or potential. It also prompted me to consider our responsibility to fill in these gaps, not just as part of occasional school trips, but through whole curriculum design.



Another challenge is filling in the knowledge gaps of our pupils’ parents, particularly when it comes to higher education and career options. On many occasions, I have heard leaders utter the phrase: “the parents in my school have low aspirations”.

I disagree wholeheartedly with this statement; no parent I have ever met could be described as having low aspirations for their child.

From my experience, we must consider the perspective of the parent: if your own experience of working life is continual unemployment and the inability to obtain a job because of a pretty bad experience of education yourself, your son who works as a full-time mechanic and paid a living wage is not a failure and certainly not the product of low aspirations.

In terms of preparing pupils for higher education, our schools are faced with the additional challenge of ensuring that parents who have not been to university feel comfortable with the thought of their child taking that route.

I have found that, for some parents, this is not easy. Rather than being against the idea or not wanting their child to do well, it is more that this option represents something unfamiliar and therefore alien to them. My solution for tackling this challenge is to ensure that parents have a hands-on experience of university life from the outset.

Why not take them to student digs, let them see how uncomfortable the lecture theatre seats are, and how cheap the beer is in the students’ union? The universities we have worked with have been fabulous in hosting our parents and very willing to support us in facilitating their engagement.


In terms of encouraging a deep focus on each subject and each child within each subject, Progress 8 really does the job. What it doesn’t do, however, is encourage collaboration.

If others around you are making great gains, sharing your best stuff to bolster your buckets means potentially taking a hit on your own results. As a school leader, this reality can be hard to stomach; we work all the hours just to make sure our own children are doing well compared to similar students nationally.

Sir David Carter recently tweeted that in his ideal Ofsted grades, ‘outstanding’ would only be awarded to schools who support others. I completely agree with him; school-to-school support is an issue and needs to be addressed.

But how do we flip this system? How do we create a playground where people give out their Top Trumps cards just to see someone else win with them? It is my belief that once we address this issue and answer these questions, we will be able to develop many more great leaders who have the capacity to impact a greater number of pupils across the board.


To say that the education sector is in need of some stability at the moment would be an understatement. Teachers are having to cover every angle of a specification to work out how it is going to be examined; this is a difficult task, but they struggle through it because they care.

I am acutely aware that developing masses of new schemes and lesson plans is exhausting for everyone. Therefore, it is my hope that now the new requirements are in place, we can all have a few years of grace to focus on what really matters: quality education.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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