Raising ambitions for Pupil Premium children

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How can we move beyond ‘off-the-shelf’ strategies for Pupil Premium work in our classrooms? Sean Harris finds out how one primary school went about raising its pupils’ ambitions

When we speak of raising aspirations among disadvantaged pupils, it can be easy to fall into the clichés that too often govern weak Pupil Premium plans in schools.

Off-the-shelf strategies, costly revision packs for all or simply highlighting disadvantaged pupils on seating plans are well intentioned, but without a robust strategy behind them, such strategies fall into the Room 101 of ideas that are grasped by those with little understanding of what it means to raise ambition.

For one primary school in the North East, the idea of raising ambition simply is not good enough – they aim to embed it in everything they do.

Eldon Grove Academy, a primary school in Hartlepool and part of Extol Learning Trust, is intent on embedding ambition among boys in maths.

Emily Fields, a Teaching Leaders participant with Ambition Institute, decided to focus her school improvement project on making forensic use of data to identify cohorts of disadvantaged pupils who were struggling to engage with maths. She was keen on raising ambition to the point that these boys were not only “secondary-ready”, but so that they would enjoy learning maths in key stage 3.

A regular review of data across a period of one half-term revealed to her that the pupils were capable of reaching greater depth. However, the boys were not accessing the support which the school could make available, nor were the pupils working at a good pace in lessons or during tests.

Drop the intervention language

The school decided to host small group once-a-week sessions based on allowing the boys to work through learning “chunks” of 20 minutes at a time. Each Tuesday morning, the boys take part in the sessions and this is seen as an important part of their overall learning diet.

Ms Fields explained: “The boys don’t see this as ‘coming out’ of their usual lessons, nor do they see it as them being treated differently to other children. The boys see it as them being able to work together to address the gaps in their learning in a fun and challenging way.”

Ms Fields also spent time looking at peer groups alongside the data and made sure that the boys were able to work closely with a matched peer learning group, reinforcing the idea that maths can be fun and competitive when tasked against other peer groups.

She continued: “They really enjoy coming to the group. The boys track their data each week and are able to explain to visitors that a 100 per cent of the group are making expected progress.”

Her advice to others wanting to embed ambition among small groups of pupils around a specific gap or topic includes:

  • Know your disadvantaged pupils – use the data to find out who they are and identify what links some of them together. This may be your targeted issue to address.
  • Get your “volunteer army” on board with you. Enlist the support of those colleagues at all levels who will champion these specific groups of pupils around a key issue.
  • Know the needs of the group and keep it small. Making your group too big can lead to you making broad brush strokes of interventions rather than focusing on key needs.
  • Have an action plan in place. Give it time, but review each half-term.

Think beyond the trip and move beyond their phase

Eldon Grove’s Liam Muir, another Teaching Leaders graduate, was appointed as raising aspirations leader when school leaders identified a surge in the number of disadvantaged pupils attending the school.

Mr Muir shares the school’s passion for embedding ambition. For him, it is not enough to run a few extra-curricular activities and “cross your fingers” that Ofsted inspectors do not ask about the impact of your trip to the local museum.

One approach to this role might be to simply download the latest ideas of how to raise aspirations and implement them. However, Mr Muir and the school’s leaders were keen to first understand the barriers to learning that existed and the state of local ambition – i.e. the opportunities that were to be found on the doorsteps of the school.

He explained: “There is too often a focus on wanting pupils to move away; to aim high by setting their sights on moving far away from home for some high salaried employment. I wanted our children to understand the need for ambition back home and to see the opportunities readily available for them in Hartlepool, too. But, at the same time, I didn’t want our projects just to be about taking our children to local places of interest.”

So Mr Muir picked up the phone to Hartlepool College of Further Education and worked in collaboration with them to design a programme of experiences that would enable children, teachers and families to not only understand the wealth of further study opportunities available to them, but the skills that were essential for accessing these opportunities.

He continued: “We didn’t want to pressure children to consider at primary level what they want to be one day. Instead, we wanted our children to consider the skills and knowledge that they want to have in the future.”

Mr Muir and his team worked with other local schools and leaders at Hartlepool College in order to create several opportunities for pupils and their families.

First, pupils and teachers were invited to attend careers conferences in the school and at the local college. Pupils were tasked with forming their own questions and challenged to interview employers and sector experts about the skills that underpin their careers.

The school also took groups of pupils to the University of Sunderland to work alongside engineers and leaders at the university to consider the skills that students in higher education need. Mr Muir added: “Pupils were given Lego and tasked, alongside staff, to build their future in Lego pieces and challenged to think about how collaboration, team-work and problem-solving are all important skills for careers in the 21st century.”

A further opportunity involved a group of pupils visiting the interior of an aeroplane fuselage to consider the role of aerodynamics and the importance of science in 21st century design.

Parents accompanied children on these visits so that they could also consider the types of skills that are needed to access higher education and careers. The Eldon Grove team is aware that it is too easy to only focus on the poverty of understanding that children have and is keen to consider how parents and carers too can experience and learn about careers and the opportunities for further study locally.

For his part, Mr Muir wanted parents and carers to see that the college was ready to support all pupils’ ambitions, not just those of future engineers and scientists. For example, the college worked in partnership with Eldon Grove to offer tours of their beauty salon and encourage pupils to consider careers in health and beauty (offering discounts to families for salon treatments). Parents and pupils were given free access to the college’s gym facilities, promoting the importance of wellbeing.

This is just one phase of a longer term project and partnership that the school has fostered to help embed the raising of ambition in Hartlepool. Mr Muir added: “This was about making aspirations visible and giving whole families real opportunities for thinking about not just what they want to do in life, but the skills required and the fact that these opportunities are local to them too.”

Mr Muir’s tips for other schools when it comes to raising ambitions include the following:

  • Identify your local partnerships. Find out who the providers and partners are that can help local people realise their potential.
  • Evaluate the skills that are needed for the types of jobs, roles and talent that exists in your local area. Find a way to bring this to the children in and out of your classroom.
  • Find your local champions. Invite those people that are local champions of sport, economy, business – they are often willing to put something back into the schools.
  • Challenge the myth that children need to move out of town or the local area in order to be “successful”.
  • Make it cost-effective – Eldon Grove achieved much of the above without having to spend valuable Pupil Premium funds, but simply by building partnerships.


  • Sean Harris is chair of governors at James Calvert Spence College and Area Director for Ambition Institute in the North East of England.


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