Pupil Premium: Where to start?

The effects of COVID-19 have been felt deeply throughout society, particularly for the most vulnerable. Research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) indicates that school closures have likely reverse a decade’s worth of progress in closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. In light of this emerging challenge, speakers at the National Pupil Premium Event 2021 highlighted how schools can strategically use their pupil premium. In this blog we reflect on their suggestions.

At the beginning of the event, Caroline Sharp, Research Director at the NFER, explained the importance of adopting an evidence-based approach for using Pupil Premium funding. NFER research for the Department for Education (DfE) found that successful use of pupil premiums was associated with two factors; introducing your most successful strategy early and limiting the number of actions taken, focusing more resources directly on the pupil's need. Metacognition, collaborative learning and peer tutoring were found to be most effective instruments for closing the attainment gap; three strategies which the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) also considers value for money.

So, how can you introduce your most successful strategy in a newly opened free school, if you don’t know what it is yet? Before introducing a new strategy, Sharp recommends focussing on the basics first. Before moving on to more specific improvement strategies (more information here, pg 91), over a three to five year period, a new school has to secure the following:

  • Behaviour support
  • Attendance
  • Emotional support
  • High quality teaching

School leaders can not underestimate the power of attendance and stability for disadvantaged pupils - a factor which has likely been absent during the pandemic. With this in mind, in the immediate future, the focus will likely be on mental health and multi-agency working. However, spending Pupil Premium funding to improve outcomes for learners can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Throughout the event, school leaders shared their successes with the Pupil Premium. Each strategy and approach to implementation was bespoke to the school’s context – every school shared a common belief that knowing the pupil as an individual, was essential to every action pursued.

At Oriel High School in Crawley, leaders used FFT Education Datalab to identify other schools which shared similar characteristics to their own, exploring which strategies worked for them (or not!). They then developed a Team Pupil Premium who meet regularly for live action planning meetings, to discuss their pupil’s individual needs. Through shared ownership over the actions taken, communication between leaders, staff and pupils enabled interventions to be tailored to the pupil’s circumstances.

A focus on the individual pupil is also key at James Calvert Spence College in Northumberland. During the first nationwide lockdown, the school quickly noticed that pupils and families were increasingly isolated in small, rural communities, without adequate access to stable internet connection and devices. They swiftly arranged a series of phone calls for the most vulnerable families, to address issues concerning mental wellbeing, laptop availability and Wi-Fi connection. Although this course of action was specific to the pandemic, it highlighted the importance of community engagement to gain the confidence of families and improve attendance at school.

Collaboration between schools, the community, local authority and external organisations will be crucial in COVID-19 recovery, particularly for the most vulnerable pupils. Other speakers at the event suggested school leaders could turn to local strategy groups, local authority initiatives and charitable organisations to access concomitant support. 

So, whilst there is not one simple way to improve the outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils, there were three common threads running through all discussions at the National Pupil Premium Event 2021. School leaders should: take time to understand their local context and challenges, focus on the basics and use knowledge of the pupils to select the best interventions for their needs.

If you’re an open free school, you can reach out to a new network with New Schools Network’s Hub. Find free schools in your region, of your phase and type, and speak to free school leaders and NSN Advisers on topics such as site, curriculum development, staff recruitment and much more. 

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