Pupil Premium: What strategies work best?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Since the Pupil Premium was introduced, debate has raged over how schools can use the funding effectively and efficiently. Christopher Woolfrey looks at some specific interventions and how three schools are spending their Pupil Premium allocations

The introduction of the Pupil Premium has created a wave of action-research, case studies and academic literature on approaches to narrowing the attainment gap. From early years interventions to extended hours booster classes, from collaborative groups to individualised feedback – school leaders are drawing on a dizzying and at times contradictory range of research. 

Some of the best of this work has been brought together in the toolkit developed by the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). 

This looks at 33 different types of intervention, summarising what research tells us about the impact on attainment and cost of each, along with an assessment of the strength of the evidence. 

For example, the toolkit says that introducing digital technology in the classroom is associated with four months’ additional pupil progress over a year. 

This means that studies have found, on average, that pupils in classes where digital technology supplements other learning methods make four months more progress by the end of year than pupils in comparable classes who started the year at the same level. 

Sir William Burrough Primary School in London is one school that has used its Pupil Premium for technology of this kind. Last year it used some of the more than £165,000 it received to run two digital literacy and numeracy programmes – Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Maths. 

The literacy programme aims to help monitor pupils’ vocabulary growth, and also generates reading recommendations tailored to each pupil. The maths programme provides personalised assignments, and also allows parents and carers to review their child’s progress online.

This focus on literacy and numeracy echoes well-documented research into academic interventions. Jonathan Clifton, a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), argues that the key to narrowing the achievement gap is “high-quality literacy and numeracy interventions that are targeted towards pupils who are falling behind in primary and early secondary school”. 

Similarly, Ofsted’s February 2013 report – The Pupil Premium: how schools are spending the funding successfully to maximise achievement – argues that the best primary schools are ensuring poorer pupils understand the basics of reading, writing and maths.

The report summarises the varying approaches and degrees of success in spending on the Pupil Premium, emphasising that interventions in literacy and numeracy can help “break down the main barriers to accessing the full curriculum”.

Ofsted’s inspection criteria have undoubtedly concentrated leaders’ minds on the importance of literacy and numeracy. Alongside those recommendations, many leaders are successfully investing funding in a wider suite of interventions, methods and programmes to give pupils the tools and social confidence to access the broader curriculum. 

For example, Claregate Primary School in Wolverhampton spent some of its £42,000 for the 2012/13 financial year on a range of intervention areas, including English, maths, staff training and pastoral support. Some of these focused on increasing pupils’ cultural capital – on helping pupils develop valuable skills for social exchange. 

In other words, they aimed to create equality of opportunity, and improve access to learning. For example, the school bought e-learning software to give parents more information to help their children complete work, as this was a particular problem for some low-income families. 

It also bought a subscription to an online language learning platform, as some pupils do not have the chance to learn additional languages outside the classroom. 

These interventions link academic progress with a focus on social and cultural disadvantage. In 2012, the school recorded encouraging results for its disadvantaged pupils: at key stage 2, Claregate exceeded the expected level of progress in maths for disadvantaged pupils.

Ray Lodge Primary School in Redbridge has also focused on social factors, specifically on helping pupils to be emotionally receptive to learning. 

The headteacher said that the school now has a qualified counsellor and play therapist who works with select pupils and their families at home. She helps the pupil to establish morning routines, have breakfast and get to school on time.

The school also runs intervention groups every afternoon that aim to develop pupils’ social skills. They are led by trained staff, including coaches, qualified teachers and higher-level teaching assistants.

According to the EEF toolkit, interventions that involve parents in learning, and focus on social and emotional learning, can increase pupil progress by three and four months, respectively, over a year. 

The headteacher said that, without these measures, the pupils involved would disrupt the learning of others in the classroom or cause other pupils anxiety when playing. Furthermore, behaviour had been challenging prior to September 2012, but has improved since these changes were introduced, to the point of being good to outstanding. 

Importantly, these interventions can also be linked to improvements in the school’s attainment data: free school meal pupils at the school are now progressing faster than the national average for all pupils. The school expects attainment to improve in subsequent years, as the changes become embedded. 

So, can every school learn from the work at Claregate, Ray Lodge and Sir William Burrough? Perhaps not. The variation in the size of the attainment gap from local authority to local authority, and school to school, suggests the problem for struggling schools is not a lack of good ideas, but one of implementation. 

Robbie Coleman, research and communications manager at EEF, told us that, for spending to be effective, schools must combine strong leadership with a clear vision and sound research. 

He said: “It’s important for leaders to be focused on narrowing the gap and to create a culture which is consistent with that – but that’s probably not, by itself, going to mean that money is spent effectively. 

“All teachers, whether they place a high priority on narrowing the gap or not, are more likely to succeed in doing so if they make decisions in a way which is informed by the existing evidence base. 

The toolkit developed by the EEF and the Sutton Trust has helped schools gather and access that evidence base – but it’s the commitment, vision and attention to detail of the leaders running good schools which makes that research effective.

Perhaps that’s the important point: engendering a school-wide commitment to narrowing the gap. Marc Roland, deputy director of the National Education Trust (NET), put it well recently. 

In an article in July, he wrote: “While choosing an appropriate intervention to meet a pupil’s needs is important, this is not enough to ensure it is a success, even if the programme has been shown to work elsewhere. What is of profound importance for the success of any intervention is the quality of the delivery, and the quality of the people delivering it.”

In the examples of good practice we have seen, that commitment to rigorous analysis has been paramount. The most successful leaders go further than devising a creative, original strategy – they analyse those results with a forensic intensity and are as quick to identify something that isn’t working, as celebrate something that is.  

  • Christopher Woolfrey is sector insight analyst at The Key, a question-answering service that supports school leaders by providing practical, expertly researched answers to their questions on all aspects of school leadership and management. The Key works with more than 5,200 primary schools. VIsit www.usethekey.org.uk

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