Low-cost Pupil Premium strategies

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Some schools are using the Pupil Premium to plug holes in their general funding. John Dabell warns against this approach and offers 25 low-cost ways to spend the Pupil Premium and make maximum impact

Feeling the pinch, hard up and squeezed within an inch of their lives, schools have been pushed to the absolute limits of their finances. Roughly, £2.8 billion has been cut from school budgets in real terms since 2015, with the average cut to secondary schools standing at a whopping £185,200.

The Breaking Point report from the National Association of Head Teachers (January 2017) found that 80 per cent of school leaders said they had no idea how to balance their budgets and economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have warned that around 1,000 schools could face a seven per cent budget cut after 2019/20.

Stealing the Pupil Premium

What is becoming clear is that the Pupil Premium pot is being raided by some schools to help them stay on the right side of their budget sheets.

The Sutton Trust surveyed 1,361 teachers in its annual teacher polling in 2017 and found that a third of school heads said they were “using funding for poorer pupils to plug gaps” in their school’s budget.

Can anyone honestly say they are surprised by this? There has been mounting evidence for a few years that the Pupil Premium isn’t being used as intended. Many, including myself, would suspect the figure above to be, in reality, much higher.

It is clear that headteachers have felt forced to do something that is morally out of order, but would they see their schools go under?

Schools enjoy incredible self-government when it comes to Pupil Premium spending but, even if there seems little choice, plundering this funding is a dangerous game to play. This is because if the progress and attainment of Pupil Premium pupils suffers nationally then from 2020 schools might have to wave goodbye to any extra funding.

The government has pledged to keep the £2.5 billion Pupil Premium throughout this Parliament, but there is already discussion about whether the funding should be rolled into the National Funding Formula from 2020. If progress in closing the gap is not made, then who knows what might happen to this money.

Furthermore, there are clear consequences in terms of Ofsted outcomes and accountability if your Pupil Premium practice is not up to scratch.

Priorities for Pupil Premium

So what do we need in this climate of tight budgets? Low-cost strategies are a must-have for schools and the good news is that the ever-increasing evidence-base shows us that there are steps schools can take that don’t cost the earth.

National reviews of effective practice have created significant evidence of what works best – not least the Education Endowment Foundation’s evidence summaries and Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

The Sutton Trust poll mentioned earlier found a mixed picture in terms of what schools were doing. In term of priorities for Pupil Premium funding, most teachers cited early intervention schemes (27 per cent), followed by one-to-one tuition (12 per cent) and teaching assistants (12 per cent). Of greatest concern, however, was that almost a fifth (17 per cent) of respondents said they didn’t know what their school’s main priority was.

Former Pupil Premium champion Sir John Dunford recognises the enormous pressures schools are under and he recommends that they adopt high-impact strategies for maintaining the momentum of school improvement. Sir John’s 25 top low-cost strategies are as follows:

  1. An ethos of attainment for all pupils – high aspirations and expectations for all.
  2. An unerring focus on high-quality teaching.
  3. Complete, 100 per cent buy-in from all staff, with all staff conveying positive and aspirational messages to disadvantaged pupils.
  4. Identifying the main barriers to learning for disadvantaged pupils.
  5. Frequently monitoring the progress of every disadvantaged pupil.
  6. When a pupil’s progress slows, putting interventions in place rapidly.
  7. Deploying the best staff to support disadvantaged pupils – developing the skills of existing teachers and teaching assistants.
  8. Collecting, analysing, using data relating to individual pupils/groups.
  9. Evaluating the effectiveness of teaching assistants and, if necessary, improving this through training and better deployment.
  10. Using evidence (especially the Teaching and Learning Toolkit) to decide on which strategies are likely to be most effective in overcoming the barriers to learning of disadvantaged pupils. High-impact, low-cost strategies include the following seven strands (with links to the Teaching and Learning Toolkit evidence):
    1. Feedback (http://bit.ly/2GqNPqX).
    2. Meta-cognition (http://bit.ly/2FAZ2b0).
    3. Mastery learning (http://bit.ly/2FzISPb).
    4. Reading comprehension (http://bit.ly/2FOEqvr).
    5. Collaborative learning (http://bit.ly/2pgw9pU).
    6. Oracy interventions (http://bit.ly/2HyTpGO).
    7. Peer tutoring (http://bit.ly/2paVlOo).
  11. Replacing some one-to-one support with small group work.
  12. Evaluating the effectiveness of interventions and making adjustments as necessary.
  13. Agreeing that when staff mark a set of books, they mark the books of disadvantaged pupils first.
  14. In-depth training for all staff on chosen strategies.
  15. Teachers knowing which pupils are eligible for Pupil Premium.
  16. Using performance management to reinforce the importance of Pupil Premium impact.
  17. Training governors on Pupil Premium.
  18. Having a senior leader in charge of Pupil Premium spending/impact.

So, how many of these recommendations are you following? There is a clear movement towards evidence-based interventions and strategies, which is a significant change in how schools approach Pupil Premium. All schools should be using proven intervention strategies rather than sticking with well-worn approaches or hunches.

Mind the Gap

The Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) 2017 Closing the Gap? report found that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are now on average more than two full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary school. Social mobility is stagnating or even worsening in some areas.

The staggering news from the EPI is that: “At the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16.”

The EPI report notes that the disadvantage gap is nothing new and has been engrained in our education system for generations. What is making the difference though in places where the gaps are smaller is that the money intended for disadvantaged pupils is actually going to them and the money is being spent on high-impact and low-cost, evidence-based strategies with a sustained focus on improving the life chances on the least fortunate pupils in our society.

Outcomes for economically disadvantaged pupils are central to our education debate but as executive director at the EPI, Natalie Perera, is right to point out, this isn’t a binary world: “It’s not just economically disadvantaged children whom the system often fails.

“There are thousands of others, up and down the country, whose potential is being stemmed somewhere between the ages of five and 16 for a multitude of reasons. We need to keep asking ourselves why.” 

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk

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