Meet the Pupil Premium Champion

Written by: HTU | Published:

Respected educationalist Dr John Dunford began work this term as the National Pupil Premium Champion. He spoke to Dorothy Lepkowska about how he will be helping to support effective Pupil Premium practice

The calls for help began the day after Dr John Dunford was appointed national Pupil Premium Champion in July. Although he was not scheduled to begin his role until this September, it seemed some schools and headteachers could not wait that long.

“I replied immediately giving them links to documents and information that they would find useful,” Dr Dunford said. “There is evidence out there that schools clearly don’t know about but would find extremely useful. They were delighted to get a response, as I was at being able to help them.”

The schools’ interest was perhaps not surprising given than Ofsted will, in future, pay greater attention to how schools spend their Pupil Premium money, and those doing outstanding work in closing the achievement gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers will be expected to work closely with those who are struggling – moves that were announced by David Laws, the schools minister, at the same time as Dr Dunford’s appointment.

His diary has filled up quickly. To date he has accepted some 25 invitations to speak to heads, teachers and educators at conferences and events.

“What I have been asked to do is to support effective ways of spending the Pupil Premium to raise attainment of those children who are eligible. This will be through working with schools, speaking at conferences to school leaders and teachers, and relaying their messages and concerns back to the Department for Education. It is a two-way role.”

The need for such a national role could not be greater, Dr Dunford believes: “The gap in attainment in the country between disadvantaged children and the rest is greater than in most other countries, and while there may be many reasons for this it is true to say that schools do not find it easy to put in place measures that quickly close this gap.

“These shortfalls are caused not only by educational factors but also the socio-economic and often domestic circumstances in which children and their families find themselves living. Some schools are doing great work in this area, but many continue to find it hard to close the gap.”

As yet unpublished figures suggest that both at primary and secondary level, London fares best in closing the attainment gap. At key stage two, 18 out of 20 authorities where the gap is smallest in attainment at Level 4 are in London, together with St Helens and Halton. 

In the capital, performance varies from 81 to 74 per cent of Pupil Premium-eligible pupils achieving Level 4. In Suffolk and West Berks, two of the worst-performing authorities, this figure is just 57 per cent. Furthermore, at primary level, London has the smallest gaps in attainment between pupils who are eligible for Pupil Premium and their peers. In the capital the average gap at Level 4 is 10 per cent, whereas in West Berkshire it is 26 per cent, in Middlesborough 25 per cent, and Woking 24 per cent.

Meanwhile, all but one of the top 20 local authorities for the attainment of secondary pupils eligible for Pupil Premium are in London – the other is Birmingham. In Westminster, for example, 65 per cent of Pupil Premium -eligible students achieve five or more A* to C grades, compared with just 25 per cent in West Berkshire, the Isle of Wight and Barnsley.

“There is strong evidence out there about what works in closing the achievement gap – perhaps more evidence than in any other area of education,” Dr Dunford said. “This comes partly from work carried out by the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to produce a toolkit of strategies that have been proven to work.

“It is clear from this, for example, that high-quality student feedback and peer-tutoring add six to eight months’ additional progress in terms of pupil performance across a year. However, one of the problems is that schools, like government ministers, often don’t refer to research to influence policy and practice. Far too many changes are made without the best use of evidence, so one of my jobs will be to emphasise what works and to get those messages across.”

Dr Dunford will also be referring schools to Ofsted reports, notably the most recent chief inspector’s report, and two reports specifically on the use of the Pupil Premium published in September 2012 and February 2013. 

Dr Dunford continued: “The executive summary of the February 2013 report provides a list of successful approaches to using Pupil Premium. For example, the need to ensure it is spent on the appropriate target group and that there are high expectations of pupils. The least successful approaches include a lack of clarity about spending, not putting Pupil Premium spending as a central part of the school development plan, and poor monitoring of pupil progress.”

Another Ofsted publication Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools: Excelling against the odds, published in 2009 (before the Pupil Premium existed), contains case studies of schools that have succeeding despite challenges. Dr Dunford added: “It contains a wealth of information about what these schools have done and how they succeed in closing the gap. You cannot do this without raising the attainment of all pupils.”

The report lists a catalogue of characteristics that are present in all of the schools featured. The primary schools all provide affection, stability and a purposeful and structured experience. They also build – and often rebuild – children’s self-belief and esteem at times when other factors in their lives may provide a barrier to learning. They also teach children the things they really need to know and instil in them the skills to be independent learners, who can also share their knowledge and experience with their peers.

The schools were also found to give pupils opportunities, responsibility and trust in a stimulating and humanising environment. In these primaries, teachers listened to their pupils, valued their views and opinions and reflected and acted on what they said. Leadership was also strong. 

The most successful schools also invested heavily in the wellbeing of children and their families, responding to challenges in pupils’ home circumstances and their personal lives. The report said: “They act out of passion for children rather than compassion. They understand that barriers to learning have to be tackled in order to make learning possible. They are adept at reducing barriers, overcoming emotional and psychological hurdles and creating the right conditions for learning.”

Other important factors leading to their success included a strong and caring ethos and commitment to the children from all staff; a positive “can-do” culture where praise and encouragement prevail; outstanding teaching by consistently high-quality staff who showed commitment and passion; a constant focus on maintaining and improving standards of attainment; a focus on the development of basic literacy and numeracy skills; and high-quality planning, assessment and targeted intervention to enable all children to achieve the best they can.

More recently, Ofsted published its report Unseen Children, in June, looking at patterns of disadvantage and educational success, and considering what policies work best. 

Dr Dunford added: “There is no excuse for a school not to use this kind of evidence when deciding how to close the gap and yet I still come across schools that do not know this evidence exists. This is the main reason why this role is needed – because there are still schools that have never heard of the Sutton Trust toolkit or used it.”

Dr Dunford’s role will take up 15 to 30 days a year and he doesn’t anticipate being able to engage very deeply with individual schools.

“The main part of the job will be speaking to conferences and communicating effectively to the maximum number of people. I have already received 15 invitations to speak and I welcome more, particularly from those areas where the gap is the largest.

“The government is attaching great weight to the Pupil Premium for which funding has risen steadily in the past three years. This year schools will receive £900 for each eligible pupil rising to £1,300 in 2014/15, and costing the taxpayer £2.5 billion. Plans have also been announced for a Pupil Premium Plus of £1,900 from next year for any child in care.

“The Pupil Premium is something Nick Clegg has taken a great deal of personal interest in and clearly, ministers are not going to allocate such large amounts of money without wanting to see major improvement. Long before I took on this role I told a conference of school leaders that it was entirely proper that this government would hold schools to account for the impact of that sum of money.”

Schools can use the money as they will, it will be the impact for which they will be held accountable. Where this is found to be too low, Ofsted can recommend schools to link up with others where Pupil Premium is working well to close the gap.

“I see my role as national Pupil Premium Champion as independent, and as standing between the government and schools. 

“With everyone working together I am confident we can make a difference and use this money to close the gap in life chances between disadvantaged children and the rest.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

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