Closing the gap for disadvantaged students – can history lead the way?

How can History departments lead the way in closing the progress gap for disadvantaged students?

The progress and attainment gaps for disadvantaged students are a source of much soul searching in our profession, and almost the only sure answer we have is that there is no easy solution. However, despite the stubborn and depressing national picture, I can testify from my own experience that there are schools with very challenging intakes that have no gap. Furthermore, there are schools with very low levels of school funding and a significant progress gap for disadvantaged students – where the History department has a positive residual for disadvantaged students throughout years 7-13.

So, it is possible to close that gap, and there is of course a moral imperative on us all to try. As a starting point I would recommend anyone looking at this looks at the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit ( This is a meta-analysis of research into the most effective interventions. It ranks different interventions by both impact and cost, enabling you to choose interventions that cost little and have a huge impact. Chief amongst these in my view would be actively teaching meta cognition. As teachers we are often prone to the ‘curse of knowledge’ when it comes to academic resilience, learning and exams – assuming anyone would think as we do in order to revise or decode and structure an answer. However, these (as all skills) need to be explicitly taught.

The next step that I would recommend is to take as a general principle that our job is to make learning as simple as possible, and when it comes to disadvantaged students – to remove as many of the barriers to learning as is in your power. For History, this means thinking about what students need to know, and then simplifying the learning process by being completely explicit about that. Knowledge organisers are one way to do this, and the ‘vocabulary’ section of these is vital for disadvantaged students. Other strategies I have found to be particularly impactful would be the use of pre-set quiz questions for the first round of knowledge work. These would most commonly be used in year 10, and throughout the course for lower attaining pupils. If you set a knowledge test on the causes of American involvement in the Korean War – you tell the students what the questions will be and what the answers are. You’ll need to think carefully about these questions – but then the task seems tangible and achievable for even the student with the lowest academic confidence, and at the end they know what you needed them to know.
There are many more strategies out there to pick from, and as we all hunt about for the ones that work for our students – the one principle to have in mind for our disadvantaged students (and of course all the others benefit as well) is this: remove as many of the barriers to learning as is in your power.

Kate Smee
Director of Humanities, Fairfield High School, Bristol

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