Slow and steady wins the Pupil Premium race

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Photo: MA Education

Since its introduction in 2011, the Pupil Premium has become a key priority for schools. Last term one of the most in-depth reports to date on its use was published. Suzanne O’Connell summarises the main findings, all of which have clear practical implications for schools

Bridging the attainment gap between children eligible for the Pupil Premium and their peers is a government priority. Ofsted is primed to report on the progress of those eligible for the funding when they inspect schools and the pressure is on for schools to justify their spending decisions and strategies.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit is already essential reading for schools when it comes to justifying their choice of strategy – but what approaches are being taken by those schools who are achieving the best outcomes?

The research report Supporting the Attainment of Disadvantaged Pupils: Articulating success and good practice was produced by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in conjunction with Ask research and Durham University. The researchers’ brief was to find out:

  1. Whether there are any common features of schools that have narrowed the gap successfully.
  2. Whether there are any possible groups/clusters of schools that have narrowed the gap and why this is the case.
  3. What are schools that have narrowed the gap doing compared to other schools? What leads to them doing well? What lessons can be learnt from them?

The research used school-level data from school performance tables, a survey of 759 primary schools and 570 secondary schools in England and telephone interviews with senior leaders. The report outlines the strategies that schools are using and how this relates to their success with a view to informing school practice. So, what characteristics do successful schools have when it comes to the attainment of their disadvantaged children?

Schools used on average 18 different strategies each to raise attainment. Those identified as being the most effective were:

  • Paired or small group additional teaching (identified by 18.8 per cent of respondents as being the most effective approach to raising attainment for Pupil Premium pupils).
  • Improving feedback between teachers and pupils (18.7 per cent).
  • One-to-one tuition (15.6 per cent).

These are all strategies that the Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests are supported by evidence of effectiveness. However, plucking strategies from the Toolkit and applying them liberally to your own school does not appear to be an answer in itself. Instead much more deep-rooted factors seem to be at work here.

A solid base – slow and steady wins the race

Supporting the Attainment of Disadvantaged Pupils is a long report that provides a number of key findings. Among its high volume of pages, schools will not find any quick-fix recipe. What is made clear is that some basic foundations must be in place first before other strategies can become effective.

The researchers found that more successful schools had introduced their most effective strategy earlier than less successful schools – even before 2011 when the Pupil Premium was introduced.

Less successful primary schools, on the other hand, were more likely to be using strategies to improve attendance, behaviour or pupil engagement in the curriculum or to have made improvements to the classroom/school environment. More successful schools seemed to already have had these strategies in place.

Building blocks for success

The researchers note that schools might have adopted the same strategies but be implementing them differently. They give the example of the application of small group additional teaching. In a less successful school this might take the form of struggling pupils taken out of English lessons to work on an online literacy programme, supervised by a teaching assistant who has received no specific training.

A more successful school might withdraw pupils with similar needs from alternating non-core curriculum lessons for tailored support from a teaching assistant trained in literacy interventions. The research goes on to identify seven “building blocks” for greater effectiveness based on the contrast between less and more successful schools:

  1. Whole-school ethos of attainment for all – includes personal commitment to improving disadvantaged pupils’ attainment versus external obligation and stereotyping; schools do not see material and pastoral compensation as the main objective.
  2. High-quality teaching for all – focus on improving the quality of classroom teaching first rather than bolt-on strategies and activities outside school hours.
  3. Meeting individual learning needs – differentiated responses for individuals versus one-size-fits-all; focus is on outcomes for pupils rather than providing strategies.
  4. Addressing behaviour and attendance – individualised problem-solving and emotional support rather than providing access to generic support.
  5. Data-driven and responding to evidence – frequent versus one-off assessment and decision points; focus on early interventions rather than at the end of the key stage.
  6. Deploying staff effectively – developing the skills and roles of existing teachers and support staff rather than employing additional teachers who are not familiar with the pupils.
  7. Clear, responsive leadership – setting high aspirations and devolving responsibility; adaptive versus static responses to improving attainment.

Although the emphasis throughout is on the importance of teaching and learning strategies, the researchers do point out that school leaders in more successful schools understood the link between attendance, behaviour and emotional support.

The report states: “More successful schools tended to have more extensive social and emotional support strategies in place, including developing close links with mental health services, creating a ‘social care’ hub within the school, providing counselling services and parent liaison staff, alongside teaching and learning interventions.”

These senior leaders involved all staff in decision-making, created a culture of openness and high performance and provided regular feedback. They encouraged staff to reflect on their practice and identify ways to improve. They acted as role-models themselves, sharing information and working in partnership, both with those in the school and within the local community.

Four stages of development

The more successful schools approached during the research described themselves as being on an improvement “journey” which had taken them between three to five years to achieve.

The less successful schools appeared to be at an earlier stage in their development and were still involved in tackling those issues, such as behaviour and attendance, that more successful schools had already addressed and overcome.

The authors of the report identify what they call the “pathways to success”, which include the stages of development that schools pass through in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Each of these stages builds upon the previous one and the whole journey can take between three to five years to complete:

1, Basic

The school is still addressing behaviour and attendance; establishing quality teaching and developing teaching assistants; they provide additional learning support during the school day and support pupils’ social and emotional needs alongside teaching and learning strategies.

2, Intermediate

The school addresses individual pupil learning needs and ensures that all strategies are being implemented to a high standard. Staff are helped to use data effectively and make evidence-based decisions. Accountability is instilled for raising all levels in the school and engagement with families is improved.

3, Embedded

The school is supporting metacognition and independent learning; collaborative and peer learning are introduced and pupils’ attainment is assessed and intervention applied early. Assessment for learning systems are embedded in the school and interventions are constantly reviewed and modified. Learning is shared between the staff.

4, Continued development

Even higher expectations are set of pupils and existing strategies are developed further. Schools work with other neighbouring schools to raise standards and learn from and contribute to national networks.

School characteristics

The report identifies the characteristics that schools tended to have who were successful in tackling disadvantage. Perhaps surprisingly, it found that schools with the highest proportion of disadvantaged pupils were associated with them performing more highly.

Factors that had a negative impact included the number of disadvantaged pupils who also had special needs; schools with higher numbers in the year group and those with a higher proportion of pupils from White British backgrounds. Sponsored academies were associated with poorer performance at primary level but better performance at secondary level.

Location seemed to matter too, with primary schools in London and the North East being more likely to be successful as opposed to those in the South East, South West, East of England, East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West.

It is important to note that successful schools didn’t just target those who are disadvantaged and are falling behind. Instead all children eligible for the Pupil Premium were made a priority, including the most able.

The main message

The main message from this research seems to be one that we have encountered many times before. There is no single strategy that works well in all contexts for all schools at all times. Much depends on the individual stage of development of the school and its readiness for some initiatives. As the researchers state themselves, there is no one-size-fits-all to closing the attainment gap.

However, what is crucial is the school’s overall quality of teaching and learning, its ethos and the behaviour and attendance of its students. Simply identifying the attainment of disadvantaged pupils as a weakness and applying remedies to this factor in isolation does not appear to be the solution, whereas ensuring a good foundation for all students does.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Fifth National Pupil Premium Conference

Headteacher Update’s 5th National Pupil Premium Conference takes place on March 11 in Birmingham. The keynote presentation will be led by the NFER’s Caroline Sharp, co-author of the above report, and will focus on the practical implications of its findings. There will also be 12 school-led Pupil Premium workshops. See

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