Making the most of the pupil premium grant

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By Guest Writer
on 12 February, 2016

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Making the most of the pupil premium grant

In 2013 only 37.9% FSM pupils got five GCSEs, including English and mathematics at A* to C, compared with 64.6% of other pupils. What has the DfE done about this? Pupil premium funding has increased to £2.5 billion; schools are required to publish details on their website each year of how they are using the pupil premium and the impact it is having; Ofsted is holding schools to account for the achievement of disadvantaged pupils and ensuring that schools making unsatisfactory progress, seek expert help by undertaking a pupil premium review; £135 million has been invested in the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF); the Sutton Trust T&L toolkit promoting effective practice has been developed; and summer school programmes have been given significant investment.

School leaders have attended endless conferences up and down the country and digested a plethora of Ofsted ‘What works’ publications, but it strikes me that there is still a great deal of confusion and a lack of confidence amongst school leaders around how best to spend the grant. So why the uncertainty four years on from the introduction of the pupil premium grant?

Conflicting reporting of the impact nationally might have something to do with it. Ofsted’s review in July made it clear that the gap is not closing; the think tank Demos revealed in February that the attainment gap between FSM children and their peers had widened slightly at GCSE in 2014 for a successive year; the gap has also increased in more than half of the 152 local authorities. On 25 March however, the DfE announced pupil premium primary children achieved their best ever results, and that ‘the new attainment gap index shows the real attainment gap is narrowing in primary and secondary’. Still, neither Labour nor the Conservatives have committed to continue the grant beyond 2016.

Ofsted’s July review also tells us that secondary schools are more likely to spend the grant on additional teachers and that primary schools are more likely to spend it on teaching assistants. Generally there is very little difference between outstanding schools and failing schools in terms of how they spend their pupil premium grant. The areas of difference are in the level of focus on disadvantaged children; the forensic targeting of support to need; and the robust, regular monitoring and resulting actions.

The pupil premium is a good policy in theory. Targeting funds towards disadvantaged pupils makes a lot of sense, given that the national attainment gap at primary school level is around 20%; and there’s no doubt that allocating funding on a per pupil basis in this way is an effective attention-grabbing idea. It has unquestionably helped raise awareness and challenged acceptance of a performance gap purely for socio-economic reasons. It has also served disadvantaged children well by illustrating the extra spend schools need to plan for, as a bare minimum. However, a policy targeted at disadvantaged pupils can be misinterpreted and lose sight of the purpose and meaning for which it was intended. For example, Ofsted felt it necessary to make clear schools should not have a ‘pupil premium table’ in classrooms. So there’s definitely a risk that the existence of such a funding stream can deter from the job in hand, which is to raise attainment for disadvantaged children.

School leaders’ relationships with Ofsted have definitely got something to do with the perceived lack of confidence in otherwise very effective and decisive leaders. I have worked with several schools after an Ofsted inspection has recommended an external pupil premium review. Invariably the headteacher has been a little miffed to be focusing on their disadvantaged children in particular. Not because they lack concern for the outcomes of these children, but because they know that standards and/or progress for all children need to improve, not just those in low income families. Despite the shaky starting point, a focus on the data of vulnerable groups, a scrutiny of provision and evaluation of the outcomes realised, is always a worthwhile exercise.

In my experience, the most effective model for a pupil premium review is using a three-way approach: the school being reviewed; an independent reviewer; and a local headteacher who can share existing best practice. This is the model I have been developing with the Catholic Schools Partnership in Bradford. The advanced level of reflection shown by the headteacher at the school being reviewed and the creativity of the ‘Local Best Practice’ headteacher have undoubtedly made this an effective model so far, but I think there is something in the model itself that allows for deep critical thinking and challenge, alongside solution-focused agreed actions.

We are always sharing practice in education, but what we often suffer from is what TES’ David Weston calls “a peculiar phenomenon”. He goes on to describe what happens to ideas in education, “the further they spread, the more unclear they become. The “lesson study” technique is a good example. In its purest form, it’s an approach to professional development with enormous power to unlock great practice. In some schools, however, it is being used in a very different manner, thanks to numerous misinterpretations and misguided implementations..”. I suspect we will all recognise this ‘peculiar phenomenon’, but the pupil premium model I am describing overcomes this. What I witnessed was two colleagues professionally opening up and discussing pedagogy; jointly working through the detail of how to make a good idea work in a different establishment; and setting about doing things differently. To do that all participants need to show some vulnerability, meaning that “misinterpretation and misguided implementation” happily, doesn’t get a look in.

Whatever you do with your pupil premium grant and however you quality assure your processes, there’s a lot of information available to help you, and a lot of people willing to work with you, so make time for evaluation and review. For those of you who feel a bit of recognition would be nice, why not throw your hat in the ring for the government’s 2016 Pupil Premium Awards and claim some of that £4 million of prize money.

Authored by Jane Sowerby

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