How Do We Close the Disadvantage Gap?

The Laidlaw Foundation is partnering with Durham University to try to solve some of the most complex challenges facing MATs serving disadvantaged communities by addressing the 3Cs of Community, Curriculum and Continuity.

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Covid has brought the disadvantage gap in educational outcomes to the world's attention. But this isn't a recent phenomenon, and it certainly isn't just about access to laptops, and wifi and quiet spaces to work. In the UK, disadvantaged children start school 4.6 months behind their wealthier peers and on average finish, by the end of secondary school, 18.4 months behind. 

This is not the case everywhere though. We have teamed up with Durham University to research what makes a successful MAT serving disadvantaged communities. If we can find the evidence for what works, and what doesn't, we can stop simply bemoaning the shocking inequity, and start fixing the problem. 

Led by Professor Chris Brown, at the University of Durham’s School of Education, ten Laidlaw Research and Leadership Undergraduate Scholars, will spend six weeks this summer, 2021, carrying out in-depth research in four core categories:

  1. Achieving effective home school relationships
  2. MATs and the wider community
  3. MAT networks, leadership and approaches to improvement
  4. Digital learning

Each category has sub-topics areas with questions to be analysed by this year’s cohort and then a second set of questions to be researched the following summer by the then incoming Scholars (see full listing below).

Professor Brown will Chair a committee of leading educationalists, a “Brains Trust” to shape and share the Scholars’ research projects. Scholars will present their findings, posters and papers, to the Brains Trust in autumn 2021 for review. Based on their findings, the Brains Trust and academics at the University of Durham will co-create a strategy and best practise framework in each of the core categories to be piloted in Academies in the summer of 2022. Laidlaw Scholars will run these pilot initiatives in their second summer, spending an immersive six weeks, demonstrating “Leadership-in-Action” – the second component of the Scholarship programme.  

The same process of research review and pilot programme development will be repeated the following year. 

The Foundation will fully fund the entire programme, paying stipends to Scholars as part of their Scholarship and covering any expenses incurred by the schools.

The Laidlaw Foundation and the University of Durham would like to hear from schools in the UK, Hong Kong and the US who serve disadvantaged communities and would be interested in joining the Brains Trust and / or running pilot programmes in their schools. Please contact Pat Lofthouse, CEO of the Laidlaw Scholars for more information or to express your interest:



Research Framework

Led by Professor Chris Brown, Durham University School of Education


Topic area 1: Achieving effective home school relationships


Subtopic 1: home schooling

·      Year 1 question: What does it take to make home schooling effective?

·      Year 1 or Year 2 question: What support is required to help families engage in home learning effectively?

·      Year 2 question: Which strategies are most effective at enlisting parents to support literacy


Subtopic 2: connecting with hard to reach parents

·      Year 1 question: What are hard to reach parent’s views on school and schooling?

·      Year 2 question: How can we engage more effectively with hard to reach parents (including the role of peers/peer groups and communities)?

·      Year 2 question: what are the social networks of hard to reach parents – who are the opinion formers?


Subtopic 3: building effective networks that can aid learning

·      Year 1 question: What are the cultural and social capital networks of children and parents in disadvantaged households?

·      Year 2 question: What are the barriers and enablers to building broader cultural and social capital networks that can lead to improved family and student outcomes?


Subtopic 4: transition

·      Year 1 question: How can parents help with effective primary to secondary transition?


Topic area 2: MATs and the wider community


Subtopic 1: Area-based (and multi-service) approaches to enhancing children’s outcomes

·      Year 1 question: What are the needs of the wider communities (being served by Laidlaw Foundation MATs)? Which agencies do or might potentially address these needs?

·      Year 1 question: How can the MAT catalyse wider community service providers to support children improve their educational outcomes (barriers and enablers to working together effectively)?

·      Year 2 question: What is the role of other service-provider leaders in ensuring area based approaches can operate, sustain and deliver change?



Topic area 3: MAT networks, leadership and approaches to improvement


Subtopic 1: Network based approaches to school improvement

·      Year 1 question: How might Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) be used to improve teaching and learning across MAT schools?

·      Year 1 question: What is the role of school leadership in ensuring PLNS can operate, sustain and deliver change?

·      Year 2 question: What is the role of teachers as change agents in their schools?

·      Year 2 question: How do social networks operate within schools and which teachers are most influential?


Subtopic 2: Evidence-informed school improvement

·      Year 1 question: What is the view of MAT leaders and teachers on using research and data to improve teaching and learning? What are the barriers and what are the enablers?

·      Year 1 question: To what extent should MAT’s embrace a consistent approach to T&L and a standardised curriculum through their schools?

·      Year 2 question: How might approaches such as lesson study and joint practice development be used to generate continuous and evidence-informed approaches improvements in teaching and learning?

·      Year 2 question: How can we ascertain impact most effectively and use impact tools to ensure MAT schools are employing the most effective practices?


Topic area: 4: Digital Learning


Subtopic 1: Learning from home

·      Year 1 question: What are the digital lives of students? How might we use social media, and video games as a way of enhancing teaching and learning?

·      Year 1 question: How do we create a seamless blend of in-class and at-home learning?

·      Year 1 question: The relative merits of synchronous and asynchronous teaching


Subtopic 2: Digital Pedagogy

·      Year 1 question: How can the gamification of learning produce behaviour change?

·      Year 1 question:  What is the impact of AI on learning acquisition, differentiation and retention?

·      Year 1 question: Whose content delivers the best results? How do schools choose from third party content providers and teacher produced lessons?


Other topic areas for students to propose research on:

  • Mental health and well-being
  • Aspiration and careers
  • Values based assessment
  • Sport and nutrition



Susanna Kempe (she/her)

CEO, Laidlaw Foundation

A graduate of Cambridge University, Susanna’s professional experience includes over 15 years in senior leadership roles in international B2B and learning businesses. Susanna began her career at the Institute for International Research (IIR) where she first worked with Lord Laidlaw, rising to Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). When IIR, which was the world’s largest organiser of commercial conferences, was acquired by Informa plc in 2005 Susanna was appointed CMO of the enlarged group and also led the public company’s investor relations programmes. She subsequently joined Emap Ltd as Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer and CEO of Emap Networks, that group’s conferences business. Later she became CEO of the fashion industry forecaster WGSN and was latterly Group Content and Marketing Partner of the leading strategy consultancy Brunswick Group. A German-American raised and educated in the UK and a committed internationalist, Susanna has been involved in globally trading businesses throughout her career, directing activity in the Americas, across continental Europe, and the Asia Pacific. Susanna has been extensively involved with education and professional development over many years. She was Head of Group Training and led the commercial acquisition and integration of a portfolio of corporate training businesses whilst at IIR; and created learning academies at both Informa and Emap. She believes experiencing and appreciating different cultures promotes better global understanding, creativity and leadership. She is passionate about the power of education to transform lives; and believes that we need to develop a new generation of diverse leaders who are curious, bold and devoted to decency, truthfulness, and innovation. Susanna is committed to diversity not only as a societal imperative but as a critical component of commercial success. As an advisor to the trustees of the Foundation, Susanna first learnt about its purpose and programmes before becoming its Chief Executive responsible for the Laidlaw Schools Trust, the Laidlaw Scholars and its other education programmes. Susanna read English and Philosophy at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She has five half blues in swimming and water polo; and played netball and rowed for Newnham.


Great opportunity here! Through work, I am a mentor in a program which focuses on social mobility "cold spots" - this is with the Social Mobility Foundation, which has some great data on areas of the country where the disadvantage gap is huge. Perhaps they'd be able to promote this to schools in cold spot areas? Home Page - Social Mobility Foundation

That is a truly excellent thought. Could you introduce me pls?