Where Best to Target Support For Disadvantaged Students?

March 02, 2020 by Tas F
Image As the move towards evidence-based and data-driven education continues to inform programmes across the sector, we took a closer look at how our tutors can reach the students who most need their help.

Thanks to the Education Endowment Foundation’s fantastic Families of Schools Database we now have easy access to the data about the population and performance of disadvantaged students in schools across the UK. Armed with a list of London’s non-selective mainstream secondary schools, we wanted to look into where and how disadvantage affects students in the capital and assess whether our selection criteria are as effective as they could be.

Targeting by proportion of disadvantaged students

The aim of the Tutorfair Foundation’s Schools Programme has always been to provide free tutoring to disadvantaged students. Typically, this means partnering with schools in which more than half of the student population is eligible to receive the Pupil Premium Grant – funding provided by the Government for students who (amongst other conditions) are in receipt of Free School Meals, or have been at any time in the past 6 years.

Students from low income backgrounds are at a much higher risk of being underserved or failed by their education, and the purpose of our programme is to improve the outcomes of as many of these students as possible. By working with schools who have a high proportion of disadvantaged students, we hope to maximise the number of disadvantaged students who have access to the tutoring whilst affording the school itself the most flexibility and choice in how and when to deliver the support to those students. As of this academic year, we estimate that our ‘>50% Pupil Premium’ threshold qualifies 101 mainstream secondary schools for our programme across Greater London.

But is this the most effective way to target the students who most need our help? If we only work with schools that cater for a large number of disadvantaged students, who do we risk leaving behind?

Targeting by disadvantaged students’ attainment

In 2016, the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission released The Social Mobility Index which compares ‘the chances that a child from a disadvantaged background will do well at school and get a good job’ (The Social Mobility Index, p5) across every local authority in England. Summarising its findings in Social Mobility and Its Enemies (2018), Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin write that ‘in England… where you live has a profound effect on your educational prospects. And the poorest districts are not necessarily the poorest performers.’

And herein lies an important distinction. Not only should we ask which schools have the most disadvantaged students; we should ask which schools have the students that are most disadvantaged. Where are the students most at risk of being underserved and failed by their education?

Figure 1 above shows how this question might be answered across London boroughs. Even in broad strokes, it’s clear that an emphasis on attainment amongst disadvantaged populations would prioritise different areas of London than an emphasis on proportion of disadvantaged students would. Some boroughs (Barnet, Redbridge) have a much lower than average proportion of disadvantaged students who are likely to perform much higher than average in KS4 Maths and English. In other boroughs (Lewisham, Haringey) the precise opposite is true. 

The difference in outcomes is perhaps starkest in Lewisham and Haringey, where the non-selective mainstream secondary schools have only a 5% difference in their disadvantaged populations, but students in the two boroughs are as much as 20% more or less likely to gain their vital qualifications at 16.  

Instead of our ‘>50% Pupil Premium’ threshold we could introduce another measure, opening our programme to schools in which <25% of disadvantaged students are expected to gain a 5 or higher in both English and Maths GCSE. We estimate this policy would qualify 95 mainstream secondary schools in London, only 17 of which would have been qualified by their disadvantaged student population.

Figure 2 and Figure 3 above show the swing that this change in measure would produce in certain boroughs. Currently, 8 schools in Camden qualify for our programme, but by focusing only on outcomes for disadvantaged students just 1 school from the borough would remain. Conversely, in Croydon, only 1 school has a disadvantaged population greater than 50%, but 9 schools would qualify according to their disadvantaged students’ attainment.

Combining measures

Another option might be to create a measure that takes into account both the size of a school’s disadvantaged population and their expected attainment. This could be achieved by multiplying the school’s % of students received the Pupil Premium Grant by the % of those students that are expected to leave school without a 5 or higher in English and Maths GCSE. This will give us the likelihood in any given school or area that a student will be both disadvantaged and underserved by their education.

This reorders the priority of areas of disadvantage without causing a huge swing from one place to another. The order of London’s boroughs ranked according to this measure can be seen below in Figure 4.

Using this measure to rank schools or areas rather than solely by their disadvantaged population also highlights the severity of need away from London. Although some areas of London are amongst the highest in terms of proportion of disadvantaged young people, it’s certain areas outside London that are least likely to provide their disadvantaged students with attainment up to a national standard in English and Maths. Using two examples of areas highlighted in Social Mobility and its Enemies (Knowsley in the North West and Barnsley in South Yorkshire) Figure 5 and Figure 6 show how this measure promotes ‘less disadvantaged’ areas outside of London above comparatively ‘more disadvantaged’ areas in London.


Currently, the Tutorfair Foundation’s Schools Programme operates solely in London. This is where the vast majority of our tutor community is concentrated, making it possible for us to get a sufficient number of volunteers applying to each position. Whilst we might be able to replicate our current model in Birmingham or Manchester, this measure does demonstrate the limits of traditional volunteer-led approaches – failing to serve the most in-need areas outside of the UK’s major cities.

What can we do next?

Having looked closely into the figures discussed here, the Foundation will now be making efforts to expand its criteria for including schools on its programmes. Rather than focusing solely on schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students, we will now be actively seeking to work with schools in which less than 25% of disadvantaged students are expected to leave school with a 5+ in both English and Maths GCSE. Schools will still be afforded the flexibility they want to target the support to students they feel will most benefit from it, but we hope this change may make support available to schools where disadvantaged students are most at risk of missing out on these vital qualifications.

We will also continue to seek funding for our online platform, Tutorfair On-Demand, that was created in 2017 to solve the problem of volunteer-led tutoring in hard-to-reach areas. Whilst we cannot efficiently recruit volunteers in Knowsley or Barnsley, we will be able to use the platform to provide access to top quality tutors to students in those areas who are just as (if not more) in need of their support.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog or anything else from the Foundation, we’d be absolutely delighted to hear from you. Please do get in touch with us at foundation@tutorfair.com.
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