Schools that succeed with disadvantaged pupils

Written by: Barnaby Lenon | Published:
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On his retirement, former head of Harrow Barnaby Lenon went on a tour of schools in England that achieve outstanding results, in many cases with disadvantaged pupils. He has written a book about the lessons he learned...

For 35 years I taught largely in independent schools. In recent years I have been involved with both independent and state schools. The two sectors are in competition but have much to learn from each other.

Independent schools have the advantage of more income per-pupil, state schools have the advantage that they can attract applicants without the impediment of fees.

In recent years, heads and trustees of some state schools have been to visit independent schools and learn from them. When I became the chairman of governors at a state school I decided to do the same thing in reverse.

First I went to see charter schools in the USA and then went to interesting schools in England, especially those that get outstanding results with disadvantaged pupils. After a visit to the Department for Education at Oxford University I started to read the research coming out of universities and think-tanks (a vast amount) and my reading led me to a number of conclusions:

Top-end achievement

Compared to other countries England does well with pupils at the top end of the ability spectrum – they succeed academically and go on to excellent universities. But we do badly, compared to other similar countries, with the lower end of the spectrum. So education in England is on average quite good, but this average conceals a huge range.

In England we have lower levels of literacy and numeracy among the bottom 60 per cent of young people than most of our competitors. Even those who pass GCSEs often have low levels of literacy and numeracy, as do some of those going to university. Many students going to university to study non-vocational courses will emerge with big debts but will find it impossible to acquire graduate-level employment.

We have much lower levels of technical training post-16 than most of our competitors, particularly at intermediate skills level. As a result, we have low levels of productivity per-person. A huge proportion of the English population are in low-skill jobs and on low pay.

The 1960s baby boom means that a large part of the skilled workforce will be retiring in the next few years. As they retire the country will struggle to replace them. For example, Engineering UK (2016) estimates that the UK will need 182,000 new engineers a year between 2012 and 2022, mainly to replace those retiring. At present we produce 113,000 a year.

Brexit may mean a decline in skilled workers coming from the EU; we do not yet know if we can compensate by attracting equivalents from outside the EU.

Within school variation

We talk a huge amount about school systems – the merits of academies versus maintained schools, free schools, grammars, independent schools. But 80 per cent of the difference in outcomes between pupils occurs within schools as opposed to between schools.

How well your child does at school depends very much on the individual teachers they have, not just on the school they go to. Teachers are what matters. This is why we need to focus much more than we are on recruiting and training good teachers.


Universities, think-tanks and the government talk a huge amount about how unfair the system is to pupils from poorer homes. It is true – pupils from poorer homes clearly need more support. But more than three-quarters of those who fail to pass five GCSEs including English and maths are not on free school meals. And the focus on equality of outcomes obscures an even more important issue, about which we hear little: the low average level of knowledge of almost all our children.

We have dumbed down so much that we are one of the very few countries in the world where young adults have weaker literacy and numeracy that adults of retirement age. This is why I applaud government attempts to raise the bar both in primary schools and through GCSE and A level reform.

As the OECD reported recently, “the evidence points to upper secondary programmes in England which require lower levels of basic skills than many other countries”.

However, at the same time we have to understand that some schools get good results for almost all pupils. I went to visit schools, primary and secondary, which either get incredible value added scores for disadvantaged pupils or who had improved dramatically in a short time. How do they do it? All these successful schools have the same formula:

The winning formula?

Discipline: These schools have quite strict discipline, without which nothing excellent can be achieved. Children need clear rules which are firmly enforced and on the whole they prefer that to the alternative. Parents are required to support these school rules. At one school I visited the deputy head had gone to pupils’ homes and confiscated computer games so they could do homework without distraction and sleep properly at night.

Aspirations: These schools require all pupils to do well regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity or special needs. This means they set high standards and any pupils who fall behind are immediately required to have extra tuition and work harder. They believe that the limits to learning are not set by intelligence but by effort, the effort put in by both the pupil and the teacher.

For example, The King Solomon Academy in London has some of the best GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils in England. Why? Because they work on the assumption that all their pupils will go to university – high expectations, from which everything else follows.

Expectations should not be limited by target grades or by a special needs label. Schools must be ambitious. Target grades are just as likely to demotivate a child as encourage them to work harder. The best teacher at a comprehensive school I visited said “I ignore the school’s target grades because my target is a top grade for every child. I will not achieve that, but my targets influence everything I do”.

If a pupil is not keeping up with expectations there must always be a response. The response will depend on the circumstances but will include:

  • Retests in the case of bad test marks.
  • Homework repeated after school when homework is late or of poor quality.
  • Seeing parents.
  • Extra tuition.
  • Pastoral assistance to pupils who are being held back by emotional or family problems – which will never be accepted as an excuse for poor behaviour or poor work

Memory: At good schools pupils have to learn how to commit work to the long-term memory. If material is committed to memory it makes it much more likely that pupils will have a better understanding and think analytically. They must all have good notes and revision guides. Work should be retested periodically to cement it in the memory. At secondary schools results should be send to parents and put up in a public place. Pupils who do badly should be set the target of improving their ranked position and be given help so that they do.

No distractions: Good schools are led by headteachers who pursue these simple goals and don’t get diverted by other issues.


The English education system shows much promise. For the top 50 per cent of academic pupils high-quality school exams are followed by successful entry to good universities. The progress made by girls and ethnic minorities in the past 30 years has been tremendous, as has the increase in the proportion of students from poorer homes making it to university. But the system is less good for the least academic 50 per cent, much less good for boys and many of those from poorer homes.

As the country leaves the EU and seeks to become competitive globally, we will need an education system which gets the bottom 50 per cent to a significantly higher level in terms of English, maths, work ethic and vocational skills. We have to be more ambitious.

We know we can succeed because hundreds of good schools are already proving it can be done. But we are a long way from the standards of technical and vocational education which would strengthen the English economy and provide a more satisfying life for many of our students. Which is why it is fair to characterise the system as showing promise – we are not there yet.

  • For many years Barnaby Lenon was the head of Harrow School. On his retirement he helped set up a state school in east London and in 2016 he went on a tour of schools in England that achieve outstanding results, in many cases with disadvantaged pupils. In his new book – Much Promise: Successful schools in England – he describes how they do it, set in the context of the latest research into school and teacher performance.

Much Promise: Successful schools in England by Barnaby Lenon was published by John Catt in April 2017. For details, visit


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