Pupil Premium – Making it Better

18 September 2018

It is currently fashionable to suggest that if we believe in things a bit more, if we get behind them, it will magically make things better and all will come good, despite the overwhelming evidence. As Philip Pullman says in his masterpiece ‘Clockwork’, ‘you don’t win by wishing… you have to train hard, strive your upmost, and still that might not be enough.’ If we are to cross the Rubicon of educational disadvantage, we have to do the right things, and do them well. We have to hold our nerve and take a long-term approach.

So how can we make it better?

We can’t simply rely on accountability to external bodies such as the RSC / Ofsted / MATs etc. External accountability matters, but schools need to think about accountability towards pupils and families too. However, the high levels of accountability for the outcomes for disadvantaged pupils are critical for long term success.

There is overwhelming evidence that short termism, interventionist approach is not sustainable, yet we still see it in some schools. This is a leadership issue, not an accountability issue. It is critical that anyone holding schools to account does not promote short termism.

There is a need to champion and celebrate schools that take a holistic, inclusive, evidence informed approach to tackling educational disadvantage. I think we need better case studies on this to be promoted through the DfE. Particularly where schools adopt what Margaret Mulholland calls ‘inclusive pedagogy’ to ensure success takes place in the classroom. Success in the classroom creates confident, successful learners who seek out challenge, feedback and recognise that learning is a difficult process.

The most effective schools create the capacity, provide the expertise and support for teachers to better meet the needs of their vulnerable learners. See the Lyons Hall model for this, as is Henbury Court Primary School in Bristol.

There is a need to encourage schools to have the self-confidence to follow strategies that address the causes of the attainment gap. These may include limited vocabulary, underdeveloped oral language, self-regulation, lack of access to high quality early years provision (see the recent OECD report ‘Education at a Glance 2018) or lack access to cultural enrichment. Too often we see we see well-intentioned but ineffective strategies which may create dependent learners: the blanket buying of revision guides, overly supporting pupils, siting all disadvantaged pupils together to make it easier for the TA, marking books for disadvantaged pupils first (as opposed to teachers deploying their resources towards pupils who need the most instruction and feedback).

Relationships matter. Steve Higgins, the author of the EEF toolkit suggests that strategies that are high impact, low cost such as feedback, metacognitive, collaborative learning, peer tutoring and oral language are relational. High cost, low impact strategies such as repeating a year, physical environment, smaller class sizes are mostly structural. Structural strategies can only work if linked to relational ones.

The most successful schools recognise that attainment is necessary, but not sufficient for success for the most vulnerable pupils.  For example, Huntington School in York ensures all pupils study MFL to the end of KS4, as the head John Tomsett believes that is an important curriculum entitlement for all the pupils that attend the school. Indeed, the school’s recent Ofsted inspection report is explicit about this: ‘School leaders and staff have a strong moral purpose. They are ambitious for their pupils and put their needs above all else. The curriculum reflects leaders’ integrity because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance table measures.’
The education is more than GCSEs.  This is in spite of the potentially negative impact on progress 8 scores. But also, there needs to be a focus on social skills, a rich curriculum, cultural literacy, positive relationships, wellbeing, careers and more.

Schools should be better at identifying pupil need and base their strategies around this. It is critical strategies focus on pupil need and not on the label. The ever6 measure gets a bad press as a blunt proxy for disadvantage, but it’s a simple, efficient way to channel additional funds into school. From there, leaders are best placed to determine who is vulnerable and needs additional support. This is where a ‘whole school’ approach is effective. Schools need to create their own definitions of disadvantage. Springfield Junior School in Ipswich says that any pupil at risk of underachievement is deemed to be disadvantaged. The school is the national Pupil Premium award winner.

We need to be wary of misinterpreted messages. One school, following inspection, was given the message that pupil premium funding should only be targeted at disadvantaged pupils. This led to the Head creating a class with a linked ‘Pupil Premium’ TA. This member of staff was asked to work exclusively with those pupils, rather than working responsively to those who needed help, or as the teacher might have wished. The needs of pupils should drive activity, not accountability.

Additional intervention, where appropriate, should be supplementary to high quality teaching. It should be structured, evidence informed, time limited, with clear success criteria that is sustained back in the classroom. Teachers should be involved in the commissioning of that research, and retain responsibility for pupil learning, even when a pupil is involved in additional structured intervention.

It is important for schools to be joined up about pastoral and academic intervention, recognising that the best way to raise self-esteem is success in the classroom. Strategies such at the Incredible Years have a good track record.

Impact evaluation is not a strength in the system. Schools need better support for this, particularly for non-academic strategies. Sometimes, evaluation to identify causal links feels trying to disentangle Medusa’s hair, particularly in relation to CPD. But it’s important nevertheless. Impact evaluation is not trying to prove something has worked, it’s about finding out whether it has, and in what circumstances. Better evaluation would lead to better, more efficient use and impact of the funding. Remember that poorly designed evaluations are more likely to present a façade of good impact.

High quality implementation is critical. Ideas are only ever as good as the implementation. Poor implementation is likely to lead to poor impact.

The use of research evidence to inform Pupil Premium strategies is not universally strong. Often, it appears that research is used to justify decisions already made, or findings of research are interpreted ‘creatively’. Some schools rely too much on the meta-analysis of research, rather than a deeper engagement with nuance and untidiness.

The negative labelling of pupils who are low prior attainers as ‘low ability’ remains an unethical blight on our education system. It sets limits on what pupils can achieve through low expectations. Prior attainment should never be a diving bell on future attainment.

The future success of the Pupil Premium is rooted in a robust, honest self-evaluation framework that asks the ‘right’ questions. If self-evaluation is not rigorous, it is pointless.

This is not a popular opinion, but I think it important that we don’t lose the public reporting. But move away from reporting for Ofsted, and more towards reporting for sharing strategies, and for accountability to the school community – how they spend funding for some of the least fortunate pupils. It’s a brilliant opportunity for schools to share their inclusive values. Some of the things that are said about disadvantaged pupils on online statements are startling. The hallmark of an advanced education system, whether at school level or national level, is how it deploys its resources towards the most vulnerable.

Schools cannot be expected to solve all of societies’ inequalities. Indeed, progressive policies such as the Pupil Premium feel like a sparrow in a hurricane of wider social policy at times. But… academic attainment still opens up life choices and opportunity in a still endlessly fascinating world.

Marc Rowland, Head of Rosendale Research School, September 2018

Posted on 18 September 2018
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