Successful Schools and the Pupil Premium – Key Lessons and 21 Top Tips for Raising Outcomes
Guest Post on School Improvement Bulletin
Marc Rowland is Deputy Director of the National Education Trust and author of a new book called A Practical Guide to the Pupil Premium. In this exclusive extract for Schools Improvement Net, Marc offers some key lessons from successful schools and a bunch of top tips…
In his remarkable book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean Dominique Bauby narrates his story by blinking one eyelid whilst experiencing ‘locked-in syndrome’. The metaphor is that his body is weighed down by the diving bell of disability, whilst his mind is still free to ‘write’ what has been described by the Financial Times as ‘one of the great books of the century’.
Bauby offers two thoughts which one might relate to disadvantaged learners. First, the Pupil Premium cannot entirely negate the effects of poverty on learner outcomes, but it is part of the package which schools can use to set children and young people free from the diving bell of the circumstances into which they are born. Second, it is a reminder that limits should not be set on what learners can achieve, in spite of or because of their circumstances.
Schools which are successful with raising expectations and outcomes for Pupil Premium children share key common characteristics:
• Firstly, quality of teaching and learning counts most. Schools that create the best outcomes for pupils, recruit, train and retain great teachers and support staff. They adhere to model practice in the use of professional development. If the teaching is not consistently very good at your school, then that should be the focus for Pupil Premium funded activity –any other initiative is sticking plaster.
• Secondly, understanding attitudes to learning and family engagement, on a pupil-by-pupil basis, is vital for the successful impact of Pupil Premium spending. This is a big challenge, and one identified as ‘the next step’ for many school leaders, however successful they have been in narrowing gaps.
• Thirdly, successful schools build teams where their vision is understood and pursued by the entire school community with relentless energy. Visit Slough and Eton CE Business & Enterprise College, St Mary’s CE Primary in Handsworth, The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, Frank Wise Special School in Banbury, St Eugene De Menezes Catholic Primary in Camden, or Oakdene Primary in Stockton and ask any member of teaching staff about the school’s vision. The vision runs consistently through the school, imprinted in its DNA. Aspirations are values driven.
One of the consistent features of excellent leaders is that they understand their communities to the point that they know what it is like to live their lives. As Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
It is in these schools that we see national and local trends robustly challenged, with disadvantaged pupils performing at the levels their peers do nationally. These primary, special and secondary schools:
• Are open to sharing what they do, at the same time constantly looking outwards, to learn from others and to ‘magpie’ ideas.
• Work together to make transition almost seamless.
• Plan for the long term, asking: ‘what will work in our school context, excite pupils and their families about learning’? It’s not just the Pupil Premium that will help narrow the gaps.
• Have high expectations and take risks to reach their goals – they don’t let accountability targets drive practice. As Phillip Pullman writes in his memorable children’s horror story Clockwork: ‘You don’t win … by wishing. You have to train hard, strive your upmost and sometimes that isn’t enough. You have to be willing to risk failure.’
• Use data to inform their practice and interventions, but don’t let it become their Sargasso Sea – not everything can be measured in the same way and it is important not to get bogged down. Learning how to evaluate effectively is crucial.
Over the past three years across the country – with an appreciative focus on the impact of the Pupil Premium – the National Education Trust has held seminars, conferences and meetings with headteachers, additionally conducting many interviews with pupils and observing significant numbers of classrooms.
As an independent foundation we applaud this government initiative, and salute the many ways in which teachers and school leaders are making a real difference to children’s and young people’s lives through creative, innovative and often exemplary use of the allocated funding.
Reflecting sharply on all that we have seen, we present the following Top Tips. This is not a definitive list and we invite readers to add their own recommendations, and share them with us via firstname.lastname@example.org – for future editions of A Practical Guide to the Pupil Premium.
• Use the BAR approach: Identify Barriers > Agree Actions > Evaluate Robustly. Be clear about expected impact, monitor quality.
• Stop or change course if things are not working.
• Know what the attainment gap is, how much Pupil Premium funding the school receives, how your school is spending the money, what the impact is, and how you are evaluating for ‘next steps’.
• Harness your funding to support and stretch higher attainers. Eligibility does not mean low attainment.
• Don’t pigeon-hole disadvantaged children as low attainers who are culturally illiterate and disinterested. Ava Sturridge Packer of St Mary’s CE Primary School in Birmingham speaks powerfully about children from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority ethnic groups going to the ballet. Enable all children to experience those things perhaps associated with middle-class families.
• Linger over language. The language gap is one of the biggest causes of underachievement in later life, especially for disadvantaged learners.
• Step back from your school – look up, look out at what other colleagues are doing. Just like a great painting, you’ll see your school more clearly from a distance.
• Challenge orthodoxies: children at Level 4c in Year 6 can go to Year 4 for peer tutoring, which improves attainment for younger children and embeds knowledge for older children, with no stigma about ‘going back’.
• Go Pupil Premium ‘speed dating’ with a group of local schools. Hear what people are doing, chose something that interests you, and go and see it.
• Be wary of expensive conferences on Pupil Premium. There are no shortcuts!
• Resist the temptation to be ‘busy’ with your funding. If you need to spend your funding on retaining a great teacher, or creating capacity in your leadership team to support, coach and monitor, then spend it there. If you need to improve subject knowledge in Years 3 and 4, so the last two years are not spent catching up, spend it there. Focus on long-term, sustained impact.
• Trust staff, and make them feel trusted. Provide time and space for well-designed research projects which will have a positive impact on pupil outcomes. If the research shows no effect, don’t continue down that route. This will create a culture of openness and continuous learning.
• Use the ‘Test and Learn’ approach for introducing new Pupil Premium funded activities. Supermarkets when introducing a new product will not stack the shelves of every shop in the country. They will introduce carefully – check impact, tweak and change. Once perfected, the product will be rolled out.
• With intervention, look for low effort, high impact. Ask ‘can the intervention be sustained?’ Louize Allen of the Lambeth Teaching Schools’ Alliance talks about the ‘Gaudi Test’ for interventions and initiatives – will someone value it enough to continue and complete it once you’ve moved on?
• Self-evaluate regularly. Ask your senior leadership team to write a short report on what Ofsted would say about your school’s use of the Pupil Premium. Review this once a term.
• Beware of averages as an outcome. Setting a target of ‘average attendance of 95%’ for disadvantaged students may mask poor attendance for some children who have very complex barriers to learning. Set your target high for every pupil.
• Focus on progress to improve attainment. A student cannot put on their CV that they got a grade D in GCSE maths but that they made excellent progress.
• Use funding to enable inexperienced teachers, or those who are struggling, to observe excellent practice. Then coach them for improvement.
• Conduct a skills and subject knowledge audit. Include teaching assistants in this process.
• Create time for your team. We have yet to meet a teacher or leader who doesn’t value space to read, research or reflect.
• Remember children have hidden talents outside of the classroom. Encourage them to be developed, nurture the privilege of childhood and it might spark something amazing!
Overcoming the achievement gap is challenging. There are no quick fixes. Closing the gap requires risk taking and taking people out of comfort zones, but in a system where currently just a third of poorer pupils make the grade, we cannot afford to do nothing.
The Pupil Premium might just be the key that unlocks the opportunity for everyone to attain well.