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Local Matters

Case studies of a university/school poverty research programme. 

Author/s: Dr Carl Emery, Research Fellow, University of Manchester / Louisa Dawes, Lecturer in Teacher Education, University of Manchester

Tackling poverty and disadvantage in schools through the empowerment of teachers and illuminating the local.


The issue

Child poverty is a significant problem in the UK. Before the Covid-19 pandemic there were 4. 2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2018-19. That is 30 per cent of children, or nine in a classroom of 30 (DWP, 2020). In England, this translates to 31 per cent of children living in poverty, compared with 28 per cent in Wales, 25 per cent in Northern Ireland and 24 per cent in Scotland (Hirsch and Stone, 2020). Yet, this is only the average, based on data we have, and in many areas across the country it is not uncommon for around 40 per cent of children in a class to be living in poverty.

The attainment gap, that is the difference in education performance between disadvantaged and non- disadvantaged children, has been well-documented over the past decade. Pupils from disadvantaged communities experience educational failure and this position seriously impacts on children, families and society in manifold ways. Firstly, in regard to Progress 8 - which measures students’ progress between key stage 2 and Key Stage 4 across eight subjects - the attainment gap is set to increase from 14. 8 percentage points in 2017 to 15. 6 in 2021.

Secondly, this impacts on children’s life opportunities in adulthood. Data shows that children leaving school with few or no meaningful qualifications are less likely to enter into and progress in employment, to be able to support the learning of their own children or to achieve social mobility goals. Thirdly, negative education experiences alongside examination failure do not just impact on children and families. They also have a detrimental effect on communities, shaping attitudes, environment and social, economic and democratic engagement. Finally, disadvantage impacts on children’s non-attainment attributes and characteristics such as social and emotional skills, mental health, behaviour and wider wellbeing.

On top of years of austerity, we now have the Covid-19 pandemic, which has placed further excessive budget and resource demands on schools, local authorities, communities and families attempting to mitigate the impact of child poverty. For families with already complex circumstances, the pandemic and its associated social control measures have had a heavy social, emotional and economic impact on already difficult circumstances and compounded vulnerability.

The policy response

In England, the response to the attainment gap advocates that schools can ‘do it alone 'and overcome the deep structural inequalities in our communities. This approach is predicated on a school improvement agenda of developing strong school leaders, highly effective teachers and directing resources, through the Pupil Premium (PP) initiative to short-term ‘gap-filling’ interventions in the classroom. This position is commonly known as the ‘what works’ approach. We are critical of this approach because it positions the child as an atomised individual whom schools can fix through paid for, generalised, interventions. This approach bleaches out the school, pupil and community context (local history, resources, geography etc), as well as limiting the autonomy and professionalisation of teachers, school leaders and the broader district policy actors.

The ‘what works’ approach, promoted by, for example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), is taking place within disadvantaged communities starved of resources and still reeling from austerity measures. Over the past decade the withdrawal of area-based initiatives such as Sure Start, the Government’s emphasis on austerity, and an increasing demand for diminished public services have all had important implications for poverty. Local authorities and schools have borne the brunt of many of these reforms; from having to directly implement poverty producing policies (such as council tax benefit reforms) to picking up the pieces where things go wrong (food parcels/hygiene products). Schools and local authorities are critical in supporting families through hardship. 

At the same time, however, shrinking settlements and decreasing tax revenues are placing extra pressure on schools and local authorities’ capacity to help families. Too many support agencies are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to meeting the needs of families in their community. We believe that schools, local authorities and other agencies need to adopt new approaches to addressing poverty. Instead of targeted funding, these approaches should use mechanisms that stakeholders already have at their disposal with a focus on locally informed responses and co-production.

The Local Matters approach

There is a growing body of place-based research that clearly indicates schools cannot simply fix or compensate for social ills. In the present ‘doing it alone’ model schools are expected to buy in research-prescribed interventions that alleviate poverty, while the school effectiveness literature indicates that such interventions are not guaranteed to work – e. g., the ‘scaling up problem’. Our interest in a place- based, relational, socio-economic approach is supported by many professionals and agencies who acknowledge that schools and teachers need to draw on locally contextualised knowledge alongside ‘place-based’ evidence to enhance and enrich their practice and positioning.

This champions a need to understand the local and the stories, histories, values, power and positions of all parties (pupils, teachers, leaders, parents and local policy actors). Practitioners across the education spectrum need to collaborate on building research-driven, sophisticated accounts of poverty and disadvantage (not be handed data summaries from central agencies) that are located in and drawn from locally lived experiences, show structural inequalities (housing, transport, health, resources) and support teachers in building a ‘place-based' critical response to poverty and disadvantage.

Our aim is to support schools, teachers and local authority leaders in employing high-quality research skills alongside contextualised poverty and disadvantage knowledge to inform schools and local authorities’ practice and policies. Specifically, we support and encourage you to understand disadvantage in the local contexts and populations; respond to these in practice with locally gathered and owned knowledge; and create changes in schools that impact directly on children and families in poverty.

What is Local Matters?

Local Matters – winner of the Highly Commended University of Manchester’s Research Impact Award 2020 – is a research and training programme that works alongside school staff to investigate and explore what we know about poverty (locally and nationally), train participants in social research methods, explore the local poverty context and then apply this knowledge and research skills, through action research, to make changes to school practice and policy. Essentially, we train school staff and the school community to be locally embedded social justice researchers.

The existing programme has been running across networks of schools in the north of England since 2017, including Merseyside, North East England, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. We have worked closely with charity Children North East and Stockport local authority in developing the programme and have drawn on their experiences as a poverty focused charity and a local authority responding to poverty. 

“You need to understand how poverty looks in your area and how certain actions and school decisions can put pressure on parents and children to live up to the expectations of others. By having a deeper understanding, through Local Matters, of the impact of the choices we make, about the financial decisions that require parents to participate, (e.g., dressing up on World Book Day) we will help to eliminate further barriers to learning.”
Blackburn head teacher I

The methodology, built on the Manchester method and contact theory, explores attitudes towards social justice and poverty and facilitates progressive and inclusive discourses to challenge and interrupt the common prejudiced and deficit narratives we see and hear regularly. The sessions develop a strong understanding of local context through exploration of community and effective core practices within schools’ curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to meet the needs of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Through a discussion-based process, teachers and leaders build knowledge of social justice in education and examine how the multiple factors of deprivation impact on schooling, attainment, and social, mental and emotional wellbeing. They examine, through research and professional practices, how inequality in terms of poverty, race, and gender shape educational achievement and gain a rich understanding of how teachers successfully overcome the challenges encountered in disadvantaged contexts and promote equitable learning outcomes for their pupils. Local Matters also saves schools and parents money as we interrogate the cost of the school day.

“Please take part. Even if you have sympathy, and feel that you cater for children and families living in poverty, you will be moved by the stories of the lived experiences of children and families in our country, and then following the poverty audit in your own school locality and community. It has been a privilege to put time aside to face out from my school. It has also been wonderful to sit in a classroom and learn. Carl and Louisa are inspirational.”
Stockport head teacher 3
“As a result of Local Matters, staff are more likely to find out and start where children and families ‘are’ and begin from there, appreciating that ‘where they are’ has much to commend it.”
Blackburn head teacher 2
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