The top six Pupil Premium problems

Written by: HTU | Published:

What are the main Pupil Premium challenges faced by primary schools? Catherine Stevens from the Challenge the Gap initiative outlines six key challenges to effective Pupil Premium strategies and offers some solutions

The Pupil Premium is now so embedded in schools as a priority, that it is easy to forget it was only introduced back in 2011. The programme is now worth £2.5 billion and the 2014/15 financial year will see primary schools receive £1,300 for each pupil registered as eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years – and £1,900 for each looked-after pupil.

Generally perceived as a strong government policy by the sector, the devil has been in the detail of implementation. There are many hurdles for schools to overcome in how they spend their Pupil Premium funding and how it is evidenced. It cannot simply disappear into a budgetary “black hole”.

The Pupil Premium and FSM developments are still proving to be political “hot potatoes”, but it is clear that the solutions for harnessing this funding to effectively break the link between poverty and poor outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, lie within schools and in collaborative working between schools.

Challenge Partners – a school improvement partnership – has recently released the interim results of its Challenge the Gap whole-school initiative, which was founded with funding from the Education Endowment Foundation. On average, pupils in the Challenge the Gap target cohorts across 132 schools made five terms’ progress in three terms, while over a third (38 per cent English and 34 per cent maths) made over two years’ progress in a year, through a focus on school-to-school learning and a collaborative approach to tackling gaps in the classroom.

So, what are the top six Pupil Premium challenges as described by primary school leaders involved in the Challenge the Gap programme?

  1. Allocating Pupil Premium spend can be problematic – school leaders struggle to balance funds between identified FSM students and other equally disadvantaged students who may not be eligible for Pupil Premium. Honing in on making the spend explicit and linked to pupil progress is the holy grail.
  2. Understanding the complexities of the different “types” of children receiving Pupil Premium is a minefield – the issues Child A faces will differ to Child B, who is also eligible. 
  3. Minding the in-school gap is increasingly becoming an issue – how do you ensure that this doesn’t widen as the impact of effective pedagogies improves the attainment of all your learners, whether they are Pupil Premium students or not?
  4. Tackling the question as to whether there can ever be a “one-size-fits-all” Pupil Premium approach. Partly, this is around ensuring that policy-makers understand that the FSM cohort in one school is made up of very different students from the FSM cohort in a school a mere mile down the road. How can schools ensure that their most able FSM pupils are not lost in the mix?
  5. Addressing the stigma of FSM children and acknowledging the challenges of engaging parents. What should schools call their Pupil Premium children? How is that “messaged” to parents without causing disengagement or bad feeling? After all, who wants to be part of the Pupil Premium club?
  6. Working effectively with secondary colleagues so that there is a consistency and understanding around the best strategies to improve key skills – particular with numeracy and literacy – as well as ensuring strong transition strategies are in place.

Practical advice for schools

Challenge the Gap has focused on the holistic progress of pupils including behaviour, attendance, attitude, self-awareness, resilience and academic progress.  Schools report dramatic impacts on attitude and behaviour from children that they have struggled to engage with other approaches.

Delivered by 14 facilitation schools (many of them Teaching Schools) to clusters of trios of schools, one of the most innovative aspects of the programme is the investment in effective use of all team members from school leadership to para-professionals (non-teaching staff). Challenge the Gap is very much a whole-child, whole-school programme.

School leaders involved in the programme offer the following advice to primary schools to help them tackle some of the challenges faced by Pupil Premium, as described above.

SLT responsibility

Nominate a member of your senior leadership team to assume responsibility for the attainment and progress of Pupil Premium students. Ensuring the progress of Pupil Premium students and evidencing this should be a whole-school priority.

Use the research

Use the research, especially the Sutton Trust toolkit, to identify how money can be spent cost-effectively to achieve the greatest impact possible. Pupil Premium pupils need to make accelerated, not average progress, so you need to focus on high-impact pedagogies and activities.

In it together

Engage in discussions with colleagues to work out how the research can be translated into practice. Even better, work together over an extended period of time to develop and test approaches. It is what Professor David Hargreaves calls “systematic tinkering” that results in the development of effective new practice.

Non-teaching staff

Use the insights and expertise of non-teaching staff to access the viewpoints of young people and parents and ask for their assistance in monitoring activities such as mentoring sessions. In Challenge the Gap, para-professionals (non-teaching staff) have a powerful role to play in accessing pupils’ viewpoints and hard-to-reach parents.

SLT commitment

Ensure heads and senior leadership teams prioritise Pupil Premium – the commitment of senior leadership is central to the success of any programme and uplifting the attainment of pupils from low-income families is a knottier problem than most. There is no quick fix and it cannot be solved without real commitment. Schools in Challenge the Gap however have made that commitment and on average pupils make five terms progress in three. Schools then go on to have a whole-school impact.

Challenge the Gap

Impress Ofsted by using Pupil Premium programmes of support, like Challenge the Gap, as a way to prove Pupil Premium activity, spend and evidence. The new Ofsted framework stipulates that schools must demonstrate the progress of Pupil Premium students and their comparison to peers both within their school and nationally. Challenge the Gap provides schools with evidence that they have thought about the spend carefully and also the tools to demonstrate that they are having an impact.


Harness the power of three – three-way collaboration between leaders, teachers and para-professionals creates a strong catalyst for change. Leaders create the teaching environment, teachers focus on pedagogy in the classrooms of these vulnerable pupils, and para-professionals focus on how they can support individuals and small groups to make better progress.

Secondary links

Working effectively with secondary colleagues to explore considered transition arrangements that are prolonged. This could involve primary practitioners spending time in year 7 to develop smoother systems. After all there is little point in children developing, for example, self-directed and independent learning habits (built up over years) to then be faced with a completely different system at secondary.

Pickhurst Junior Academy 

Pickhurst Junior Academy in Bromley is a trio lead school using Challenge the Gap and has recognised a “phenomenal” improvement in attitudes, attainment and aspiration since joining the programme. 

The school was concerned that its FSM children were invisible. They set out to maximise the life chances and skills of not only their FSM pupils, but of all pupils, while ensuring that the most vulnerable children still received effective support. They achieved this via the following strategies: 

  • Having teachers and para-professionals together in the team.
  • Having a relentless drive for excellence for all children, not just FSM .
  • Introducing whole-school activities such as Freedom Days and Philosophy for Children.
  • Ensuring FSM pupils’ progress is part of all teaching assistant and teacher appraisals.
  • They restructured all teaching assistant posts with the work being completed by higher level teaching assistants, qualified teachers, and para-professionals.
  • Intervention groups for year 3 and 4 pupils are run by qualified teachers and para-professionals are flexibly deployed.
  • New teachers’ contracts include a bonus related to FSM pupils’ accelerated learning.   

• Catherine Stevens is programme director of Challenge the Gap. 

Challenge the Gap

Challenge the Gap is a whole-school programme that has been shown to improve the academic performance of Pupil Premium pupils through school-to-school learning and a collaborative approach to tackling gaps. It was founded with funding from the Education Endowment Foundation and has been developed by Challenge Partners and 14 facilitation schools. These schools deliver the programme to clusters of three to five “trios” of schools. The trio works closely together over a year to develop and share effective practice. Next year’s programme starts in June/July and the application window is open now. Email and visit

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