Pupil Premium challenges: Supporting the most vulnerable pupils

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Photo: iStock

National Leader of Education Helen Frostick discusses some of the Pupil Premium challenges facing schools and considers some traits of excellent, whole-school Pupil Premium practice

Set against a challenging back-drop, the commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable pupils achieve well is stronger than ever across schools, and not because of the importance to be seen to be narrowing the gap for Ofsted. Targeting those that have only a 50 per cent chance of achieving as highly as their peer group and using the Pupil Premium funding wisely is at the heart of what schools believe to be right; their core purpose.

Pupil Premium challenges

However, there are many frustrations and time-consuming developments in education that could swerve leaders from their core purpose if they don't stand firm.

First, there is the challenge of universal free school meals for all infants – and so why should parents bother to register for Pupil Premium?

This has caused an extra layer of bureaucracy for schools to navigate in order to persuade parents to go through the process of applying in order to secure this financial help for their child. Parents need to be guided and encouraged to apply as the funds cover much more than just a free school meal.

Elsewhere, while we have been diligently designing and buying in to sophisticated systems of tracking pupils' progress, the government has been bringing to us "life without levels". How are we going to continue to produce ways of establishing trajectories of progress for our most vulnerable pupils going forward? This is a period of uncertainty and could unnerve schools.

There is also the pressure of publishing our spending plans for the Pupil Premium funds on our websites. We must also publish the impact of this spending. Under robust financial management systems, schools have been ensuring value for money in terms of pupil outcomes for years. Accountability is undeniably important, but the public domain of websites brings a level of transparency which means that schools must be seen to get this right.

Effective Pupil Premium practice

At St Mary Magdalen's, we have been part of a pilot group of schools which have met to discuss the most effective interventions and uses of Pupil Premium funding. We have discussed:

  • How important it is not to "double loop", which is when interventions that haven't been working are repeated, or more time is invested in to the same failing activities.
  • How important it is to match staff, teaching and support staff, to pupils' needs.
  • Not being afraid to use older pupils to be part of the mentoring programmes.
  • How much more effective two-to-one tutoring is, compared to one-to-one tutoring, where pupils are carefully paired and their relative weaknesses targeted, harnessing the shared learning presented through peer work.

Fundamentally, schools are working hard to get the teaching right first. In the most successful schools the more vulnerable pupils tend to do better, with outstanding teaching being particularly important for this to happen. Outstanding teaching leads to outstanding learning, leads to outstanding progress, for all pupils. "A rising tide lifts all boats" and schools who relentlessly strive to improve are delivering the best provision for Pupil Premium students.

Engaging parents

Parents are their children's first educators and engaging with them is a big part of a successful intervention programme for their children. Sensitively and empathetically working with parents can move the pupils forward at a much faster rate.

However, some parents of Pupil Premium students have had bad experiences of schools themselves and have a blocking and defensive attitude to schools reaching out to help. This takes a determined patience to see through.

At St Mary Magdalen's, the SENCO is highly skilled at bringing parents on board. She has a down-to-earth personality and talks honestly about the children's barriers to learning and what can be done in partnership to overcome them.

All parents are their children's champions and want them to do well at school. Some of them just don't know what they can do to make a difference, so it is a good investment of time to equip them well.

Help with homework, through a homework club, and having an "Open Door Policy" can also bring parents on board and make them more willing to work in partnership. Homework can be very stressful for children when their parents can't or won't get involved.

However, some parents just won't be supporting their children at home. Many schools have excellent ways of managing this – daily reading interventions, daily phonic interventions, and welcoming in teams of volunteers.

Many companies are community-focused and are only too happy to send staff in as volunteers.
For example, L'Oreal personnel came in to St Mary Magdalen's for a six-week block and the results were instantly noticeable. The children assigned to the volunteers were those that needed that daily reading practice not available at home. Their confidence soared over the course of the six-week block. Other schools are using church connections to bring in fleets of volunteers. Careful management in terms of safeguarding children is required, but these ideas are well worth exploring.

Leadership and purpose

Strong leadership is the key to narrowing the gap for our most vulnerable pupils. The best schools at narrowing the gap are seldom complacent. Many are carrying out audits of their practice, determined to do even more.

They are focusing on key children eligible for Pupil Premium who may be falling just short of their targets as case studies. They are analysing the impact of interventions but, at the same time, ensuring that all interventions are well-thought-through with measurable outcomes at the outset.

Staff meetings are used as opportunities to bring everybody together, to revisit the core purpose of the school, including to ensure that the most vulnerable pupils are at the heart of the provision

At St Mary Magdalen's, the School Improvement Partner worked with senior staff to draw up an action plan after a thorough review of Pupil Premium. Certain key priorities were identified for raising the attainment of children eligible for the funding and the actions that would be taken. The priorities identified were as follows:

  • To establish end of key stage targets for individual Pupil Premium students, along with trajectories of progress across the relevant key stage.
  • To report regularly to governors on the use and impact of Pupil Premium funding.
  • To introduce home visits for Pupil Premium pupils as soon as identified in Reception.
  • To adapt and change additional support programmes for Pupil Premium pupils who aren't making progress towards individual targets.

Schools can and do make the difference to individual children's achievements and attainment. To focus on Pupil Premium within the over-arching aims of the school ensures that we are putting pupils first and putting them at the centre of everything we do.

  • Helen Frostick is the headteacher of St Mary Magdalen's Catholic Primary School in south London and a National Leader of Education.

Previous article
Helen Frostick's previous Pupil Premium article in Headteacher Update, Narrowing the gap, December 2014, can be accessed at www.headteacher-update.com/best-practice-article/narrowing-the-gap/66609/

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