At the end of January, we attended the Inside Government conference, ‘Pupil Premium: Ensuring the Best Educational Outcomes in Secondary Schools’, to see what we could learn about Pupil Premium strategy from the experts.
We heard keynote speeches from Sonia Blandford, Founder and Chief Executive of Achievement for All, and Thomas Martell from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), as well as a talk on ‘Establishing a Comprehensive Pupil Premium Strategy’ from the Deputy Director of the National Education Trust, Marc Rowland.
On top of that, we also heard from a collection of Pupil Premium Award winning schools presenting case studies of what has worked in their settings, but more importantly, how and why it worked for their particular setting.
Context is key
Throughout the day, there was a heavy focus on the idea of context – the makeup of your school, as well as the specific situations for each of your disadvantaged pupils – for example, does your school have a high/low intake of disadvantaged pupils? What are the barriers to learning for each disadvantaged pupil in your school?
Sonia Blandford outlined the context of disadvantaged pupils across the UK:
- One in six children come from persistently poor families, characterised by ill health and low skills.
- There is a clear link between academic achievement and socio-economic background.
- The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers widens at key stage 4.
- There is an overlap between special educational needs (SEN) and free school meals (FSM) eligibility.
- Children from low income families are more likely to have SEN.
- 61 percent of looked-after children (LAC) have SEN.
The key message around context was that you can’t have a successful strategy without first understanding the context of your school’s disadvantaged pupils, identifying the barriers to learning, and building your strategy around the specific barriers to learning for your pupils.
Thomas Mardell summed up the importance of understanding context with the quote: “Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.”
Build your evidence basis
In his speech, Thomas Mardell emphasised the importance of building an evidence-based focus to break the link between family income and school attainment, and to avoid fads that turn out to be ineffective.
He recommended looking at high quality, independent evidence to find out what has worked well in other schools of a similar context to your own.
The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit provides an evidence-based insight into strategies and interventions, including the average impact vs. the cost and the quality of the evidence. The EEF has also produced two guidance reports translating this kind of evidence for schools.
Increased data capabilities have made it easier to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies once put in place. Therefore, it’s essential to look at your own evidence to decide whether your strategy has proved effective or ineffective, and what needs to be changed in order to sustain progress.
Removing barriers to learning
Sonia Blandford stated that a common barrier to learning for disadvantaged pupils is the lack of a sense of belonging, but she was positive that schools can make a difference to this through good leadership, teaching and learning.
She believes that for disadvantaged pupils to achieve this sense of belonging, they need to be in the classroom – as opposed to being set an alternative curriculum or being taken to learn away from their peers – and they need to participate in wider activities, such as team sports.
It is common for teaching assistants (TAs) to take on a large role in the education of disadvantaged pupils, and while this approach may work for some schools, Sonia believes that it is imperative for disadvantaged pupils to have access to the best teachers, and that removing barriers to learning should be a collaborative responsibility for all school staff. This sentiment was echoed by almost every other speaker on the day.
To effectively remove barriers, Sonia believes it’s important to:
- Use research to identify barriers to learning and create an informed strategy to remove them.
- Allocate the best teachers to disadvantaged pupils.
- Ringfence funding.
- Analyse feedback with teachers.
- Offer support for pupil attendance.
- Utilise the support of Achievement for All.
Achievement for All coaches will work with schools to understand the barriers to learning. Sonia described the process for removing barriers with the ‘three As’:
- Aspiration “I can” – aspiring to remove the barriers
- Access “I am doing” – removing the barriers
- Achievement “I have learnt” – overcoming the barriers
Marc Rowland gave an inspiring talk on changing the way we think and talk about raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, and how it’s not just interventions that can affect outcomes.
He suggested that the term “narrowing the gap” in itself is a barrier to learning, as it sets limitations on what disadvantaged pupils are allowed to aspire to, therefore, setting limitations to their attainment. He recommends phasing out language such as “we can’t expect”, “bottom set”, “expected progress”, and “low ability” due to the negative connotations they imply and the limits they set.
He also urged schools to consider language poverty as a barrier to learning, and to combat this by making classrooms language-rich to increase disadvantaged pupils’ access to a wide vocabulary.
To ensure your school raises the aspirations of disadvantaged pupils, he argues you need to have high expectations, challenge orthodoxies and push the boundaries, offering up three pieces of advice on raising the aspirations of pupils:
- Don’t assume disadvantaged pupils are of low academic ability.
- Don’t create a separate curriculum for disadvantaged pupils.
- Don’t focus necessarily on getting disadvantaged pupils to ‘catch up’ with their peers, but to ‘keep up’.
On maximising impact, Marc Rowland emphasised the need for disadvantaged pupils to access high quality teaching every day and to make the teachers themselves feel accountable for their pupils’ outcomes. He also emphasised that pupil premium can’t tackle disadvantage on its own, it requires a certain level of understanding and motivation, highlighting the importance of:
- Middle leaders understanding data on disadvantaged pupils across the school.
- Good staff wellbeing – as poor staff wellbeing may have a negative impact.
- Teachers understanding the evidence of pupil premium impact.
- Extra-curricular clubs and teams.
The topic of parental engagement featured heavily throughout the day, mentioned by every speaker as a factor in maximising the impact of the pupil premium, tying in with the idea of language poverty and the sense of belonging. Consider what you can do to really get parents involved in their children’s school attainment – are you a hard to reach school? What medium do you use to contact parents? How often do you contact parents? What do you contact them about?
TAs were also a common theme, as Thomas Martell referred to a 2008 study found that the traditional, informal use of TAs showed a low impact for a high cost; however, Thomas Martell clarified it’s more about how you do it, and it depends on context, suggesting that high quality, structured interventions may prove to be effective in certain contexts.
When asked how TAs should be used, Marc Rowland provided the following advice:
- Use TAs to enable teachers to work with vulnerable pupils
- Utilise TAs to gather a sense of pupils’ progress and feedback to the teacher
- Ensure that TAs do not talk to pupils while the teacher is talking
- Utilise the presence of TAs to help manage classroom behaviour
- Use funding to provide CPD for TAs
- Ensure TAs don’t intervene too quickly when a pupil struggles with a piece of work – giving them the answer may wrongly suggest to the teacher that they have mastered a topic, causing the teacher to move on to a different subject before the pupil is ready
What worked for the case studies?
One element that kept resurfacing throughout the day as an important factor in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils was getting pupils reading. There were reams of examples of how the case studies had spent their pupil premium, but the majority share was invested in teaching their disadvantaged pupils how to read.
Strategies that worked for raising attainment in the case studies included the following:
- Implementing a Literacy Policy
- STEM Club
- Brilliant Club
- Accelerated reading programme/Lexia
- Homework Club
- Changing pupil mindsets to raise aspirations, by inviting inspirational speakers to the school to give lunchtime lectures
- Partnerships with parents through a forum, a ‘support your child programme’ and accessible communication, such as texting
- Library lessons
- Investment in the library
- Making it the first item on the department agenda
- Inviting authors to the school to talk about their books
- Giving new intakes a reading pack to help with their transition
- Try to look at barriers to learning through the eyes of your pupils.
- Put your best teachers in front of your disadvantaged pupils.
- Make sure everything you do relates to your school context.
- Look at high quality independent evidence to find out what has worked well in other schools of a similar context to your own and see if it can work for you.
- Monitor and evaluate the success of your strategy – if it doesn’t work, try something different.
- Get pupils reading!