DfE asked to define ‘disadvantage’

Monday, July 25, 2016

What do we mean when we say children and families are ‘disadvantaged’?

This is one of the key questions asked by Ofsted in a new report, which claims that the lack of a common understanding of the term is hampering poorer children’s life chances.

The inspectorate is calling on the Department for Education to provide a common definition of disadvantage, encompassing economic, health and social indicators. The report, ‘Unknown children – destined for disadvantage?’, says tackling the issues facing disadvantaged families requires leaders across children’s services, health and education to have a broader understanding of what it means.

It draws on feedback from an online survey of local authorities in January, followed by Ofsted inspector visits to 15 LAs to assess the effectiveness of their plans to support disadvantaged families. Inspectors also visited 43 providers, including schools, nurseries and childminders.

Being disadvantaged continues to have a considerable detrimental impact on children. In 2015, around half of children from disadvantaged backgrounds had achieved a good level of development at the end of Reception, compared with two-thirds from better-off homes.


The report found there was no shared definition of disadvantage in the 90 local authorities that responded to Ofsted’s questionnaire. At its worst, there is a lack of shared definition between health, social care and education that ‘led to a confused list of priorities’.

While children’s eligibility for free school meals is used as the ‘proxy indicator’, the report notes that this measure is not used in all countries, and that some choose a wider definition, including the mother’s level of education, employment and health.

While all LAs, pre-school providers and schools that Ofsted visited defined disadvantage in terms of a family’s income, the most effective settings had a much wider view.

One local authority had what the report calls ‘a narrow and blinkered view of their community and the extent of the issues facing it’. In this case the LA knew not all children eligible for support were receiving it but nevertheless targeted its limited resources at those that were known to the system, rather than seeking out more families. Ofsted said outcomes for disadvantaged children in this area were ‘weak’ and showed little sign of improvement because early childhood services were being focused on only those who were ‘known and visible’.

However, the most effective settings used the term ‘vulnerable’ as a way of describing the unique circumstances facing a family.

For example, one pre-school attached to a children’s centre had an agreed policy about the circumstances in which a child and their family would be regarded as ‘at a disadvantage’. This included children who:

  • showed poor speech and language for their age and stage of development
  • were being looked after by someone other than their parents, e.g. grandparents
  • were in a family known to be involved in crime
  • had young or teenage parents
  • had young siblings with a wide age gap between them.

It said the list was developed from ‘an acute understanding of the local community’, developed through strong working relationships with social workers, health visitors and the police. ‘Leaders in this setting were clear that their working relationships with a wide range of professionals made them more aware and, ultimately, more responsive to the exact needs of children in the locality,’ the report said.

In one school, vulnerability was seen to be particularly prevalent for children who had witnessed domestic violence or were living in households with drug or alcohol addiction. This insight meant the school had devised a curriculum that was rooted in personal, social and emotional aspects of learning. A ‘listening ear’ service and counselling were available for children, who were monitored closely to ensure they felt secure and had the right dispositions for learning.

Children identified as vulnerable caught up quickly with their peers and reached a good level of development at the age of five, some exceeded this and were ‘fully prepared for the demands of Year 1 and a more formal approach to the curriculum’.

In many of the early years providers visited by Ofsted, a child or family’s vulnerability was not taken into account – only children with funded places were considered to be disadvantaged.

This meant special educational needs, disability, English as an additional language and being born in the summer were seen as factors linked to a ‘child’s level of development in comparison to the “typical child”, rather than issues brought about by living in a deprived community. Frequently, this thinking resulted in no bespoke provision for a child to meet their potential and was in direct contrast to schools taking funded children.’

The report said that the most effective early years leaders were able to identify at least one child as disadvantaged but whose family were not living in a deprived area, nor eligible for extra Government funding.


The report says that more needs to be done to ensure that this extra funding has an impact. Just under half of the schools and early years settings visited had not identified children eligible for the EYPP, ‘because local authority protocols and delays in payment hindered easy identification. Five of the schools visited found it difficult to account for their use of the school pupil premium in Reception.’

Twenty-five of the providers visited were unclear about how to use the EYPP; they reported that many parents refused to allow LAs to check their eligibility.

While take-up of the two-year-old offer is increasing, access to it does not automatically guarantee continuity of extra funding.

One setting visited was using the EYPP to send staff on specialised training to enhance their curriculum and provision for physical development, after an audit of children’s skills found many were not reaching the goals expected in this area. After a review, the setting realised this was partly due to its provision, but also a lack of children’s experiences at home, with many families living in high-rise flats or one room, meaning the children lacked space to develop physically.

While one school used the EYPP to employ a speech and language therapist, others were not so successful.

Five schools could not account for pupil premium money in Reception and planned to use it on improving outcomes in Years 2 to 6 because it was felt ‘weaknesses can be fixed further up the school’.

Despite evidence showing the benefits of supporting disadvantaged families in the early years, the report found many leaders did not see the long-term gains of focusing money and attention on under-fives.

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