Sharpening our focus on disadvantage

3 September 2019

As a new school year starts our CEO Dr Kate Chhatwal looks at how we will be working to support the most disadvantaged children to close the attainment gap

My children are lucky. By accident of birth into a loving family, with professional parents, they have, over the summer, been able to enjoy a holiday abroad, trips to museums, and plenty of books to read. It’s probably an understatement to say that we take an interest in their education; I suspect their headteacher sometimes wishes I would take rather less interest! In a school where 45% are eligible for the pupil premium, some of their classmates are less fortunate. Across the country, it falls to schools to offer the advantages too many children lack at home.

Reducing educational inequality and improving life chances for all children is at the heart of Challenge Partners’ mission. Over the summer, we have been putting the finishing touches to two innovations to support our efforts to achieve these aims and live our value of equity, which reminds us that those who have the least need our combined expertise the most.

Rarely have disadvantaged children needed our commitment and skills more. After years of narrowing, the disadvantage gap between poorer pupils and their peers has, for the first time since 2011, stopped closing. This sobering finding comes from Education Policy Institute’s 2019 report, published in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance (of which Challenge Partners is part). 

As a result, by the time they leave secondary school, disadvantaged children are now over 18.1 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers - with that gap having widened by 0.2 months since last year. The very worst-off pupils are now even further behind than they were a decade ago: almost two years of learning (22.6 months) behind other pupils, by the time they finish their GCSEs. 

Source: Education Policy Institute in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance (2019), Education in England: Annual Report 2019

Enhancing the emphasis on children with additional needs in our peer Quality Assurance Review

Against this backdrop, we have been working with our Head Reviewers and practitioner experts to update the annual Quality Assurance Review that every school in our 477-strong national network of schools subscribes to. We’ll be sharing full details of the changes we’re making in the coming weeks, but one significant innovation is a sharper focus throughout the peer review and concluding report on the ‘quality of provision and outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and pupils with additional needs’.

Under this heading, review teams will look particularly at how well the needs of learners in receipt of the pupil premium or with special educational needs and disabilities are met. They will consider the extent to which expectations, progress and outcomes are high, and whether the foundations of good attendance and engagement in learning are in place.

We know that disadvantage takes many forms, so review teams will also be expected to evaluate provision for pupils facing other challenges. This could include young carers, services and other mobile pupils, looked after children, and those with no recourse to public funds – all of whom are represented across our diverse network of school communities. The review will evaluate how these vulnerable learners are identified and supported to achieve excellence – because, if we are to close the disadvantage gap, equity and excellence must go hand-in-hand.

Excellence for Everyone

The same sentiment of excellence and equity underpins Excellence for Everyone, our new evidence-based programme challenging the link between poverty and poor outcomes. Taking the best from our successful Challenge the Gap programme, updated by expert practitioners using the latest research and tested practice, the programme enables schools to develop a whole-school approach to closing the disadvantage gap.

Excellence for Everyone will be delivered from the autumn through accredited school-based training partners, who will work with Challenge Partners to bring local clusters of schools together for training, joint-practice development, challenge and support. Lead schools will have a track-record in narrowing the gap and will share their expertise with participating schools.

Together these two initiatives will sharpen our focus on tackling disadvantage, ensuring that through collaboration, challenge and professional development, more children get the excellent education and better life chances they deserve – because it shouldn’t come down to the accident of birth.

If you are interested in joining Excellence for Everyone as a lead or participant school, please contact Programme Manager Hannah Cornell by email on For more information about joining our Network of Excellence incorporating an annual peer Quality Assurance Review, contact Partnership Development Manager Jonathan Goggs by email: