If you lead on Pupil Premium…

Over the last few months we’ve been using webinars at United Learning to connect school leaders who lead on particular issues. Here’s a summary of our recent webinar on Pupil Premium, with thanks to colleagues leading on this who shared their insights so freely.

We started by looking at two recent studies.

The EEF’s Attainment Gap 2018 report tells the familiar story of the gap between PP and non-PP students increasing as they go through school (see diagram below). Our Regional Director Christine Raeside recommended comparing the books of PP and non-PP students with the same starting point. Are the PP students producing work of equal quality in Year 7?  What about years 8, 9, 10 and 11?  It’s easy to see PP analysis as a data checking exercise, all too often undertaken when it’s too late to intervene. Focusing on students’ books, and comparing PP with non-PP from the same starting points – not just within subjects, but also across subjects – enables emerging gaps to be identified while it’s still possible to act.

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The EEF report goes on to say that “Even small improvements in young people’s GCSE qualifications yield significant increases in their lifetime productivity returns and in national wealth – highlighting the importance of continuing to focus on improving results for currently low-attaining pupils.” We illustrated this with the example of Totteridge Academy, where the Principal Chris Fairbairn identifies students in Y11 at risk of leaving school with very little (this school only joined United Learning 18 months ago). He calls them in to his office in the spring term of Y11 and tells them to forget about their previous 11 years. He reminds them that their exams are marked by people who don’t know them, who have no pre-conceptions of their ability, and he asks them to see their final few months of school as a fresh start. Last year this approach led to several students leaving school with some decent grades to show for their education, when before they were on course to leave with very little.

We then turned our attention to a recent OECD study which compared disadvantaged students from around the world and emphasised the importance of classroom culture: “The evidence of the positive role of school climate is supported by academic research that illustrates, in a variety of contexts, how student learning can be supported by a positive and respectful atmosphere that is relatively free of disruption and focuses on student performance”.

It’s easy to say that culture matters, but Sam Viney from Glenmoor & Winton Academies in Bournemouth (one of the highest performing schools in the south, yet PP kids outperform non-PP) brought this to life by urging PP leads to influence SLT colleagues leading on behaviour, attendance and teaching & learning by ensuring that PP students are prioritised in each of these whole-school areas.  Does the school leader leading on attendance ensure that the attendance of PP students is front and centre in their analysis and intervention? Does the school leader leading on T&L ensure that PP students particularly benefit from the school’s best teaching? Does the school leader leading on behaviour pay particular attention to PP students?

The OECD study also points to one of the key barriers for our Pupil Premium students: “Truancy, at the school level, is also strongly associated with student performance”.  This captures the twin challenge for colleagues leading on PP.  On the one hand there’s the macro – ensuring that the whole-school culture is one that supports disadvantaged students – while on the other hand there’s the micro: identifying and tackling the specific barriers that PP students face. In our experience, attendance and literacy top this list.

A key theme that emerged in our webinar is that we can’t treat Pupil Premium students as a single group. Schools with success in this area are tenacious in identifying the specific groups who might be underperforming, which might reveal that Pupil Premium girls from ethnic minority backgrounds are doing just fine, for example, while white British Pupil Premium boys might be struggling, particularly in English. There’s an important role for subject leaders and teachers here too, as they are well placed to consider how these gaps play out in their subject, and adapt their support accordingly – perhaps our white British PP boys struggle with Section B of the second literature paper where they have to compare two unseen contemporary poems?  These are the PP gaps that matter, especially if they’re discussed by teachers after a mock exam in January, and not by SLT after the final exams in August.

We closed our webinar by looking at this series of blogs from Mike Treadaway of Education Datalab, and not only because one of the stars of this series is our very own Sheffield Park Academy.  Treadaway’s analysis reinforces this point that not all PP students are the same: students who are in receipt of free school meals throughout their last 6 years (‘long term disadvantaged’) perform much worse than those who only qualified for free school meals at one or two points within the last 6 years (‘briefly disadvantaged’).

School leaders leading on PP might be wise to check their census returns so that they can distinguish between their briefly disadvantaged students and their long-term disadvantaged students.  The briefly students might just need light-touch support to ensure they’re on track, and perhaps some fine-tuning in Y11.  The long-term students, on the other hand, might need intense support to tackle stubborn barriers to achievement, such as attendance, literacy, homework and parental engagement. There might be a case for spending a higher proportion of the Pupil Premium budget on the intense support that these students need rather than spending PP funding equally on all eligible pupils.

One last thought. The 2017 Sutton Trust Chain Effects report makes it clear that trusts that do well by Pupil Premium students do well by all of their students.  By tackling the achievement of our PP students, our PP leads might just be improving the school experience for all their students.

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