Nearly a third of schools are using pupil premium to plug the holes in their budget this year, according to the Sutton Trust annual survey of teachers, published on 12 April.
In 32 per cent of primary schools and 27 per cent of secondary schools the reduction in the school’s funding is being mitigated by spending some of the pupil premium on items that would previously have been paid for through the main budget.
This is bad news for the disadvantaged pupils in those schools, who are not benefitting from the additional spending. It is bad news for schools, too.
Taking a gamble
Pupil premium is not subject to detailed government prescription, as occurs in so many other areas of school life. Schools get the additional funding and are held to account for the impact they make on the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
This intelligent form of accountability gives school leaders and governing bodies a large amount of autonomy in the way the money is spent.
So bad news story number one is that schools are playing a very risky game in allocating pupil premium money to areas that will not affect how well their disadvantaged children do. Impact may well be reduced and accountability will tell the story very publicly.
Bad news story number two is that the government may conclude that, if schools do not spend the money on disadvantaged pupils, the funding will in future come with strings attached and schools will lose the autonomy on pupil premium spending that is the envy of schools in many other countries.
Bad news story number three is that depriving disadvantaged pupils of their entitlement goes against the values of equity and fairness to which most schools subscribe.
Doing extra for disadvantaged pupils and thus, at least to some extent, levelling the playing field of their lives in comparison with their fortunate peers is a key part of the moral purpose of teaching.
Changing the lives of young people – especially the disadvantaged – is what brought many teachers into the profession and gets them out of bed in the morning.
When the government reinforces that moral purpose with extra funding, schools should not divert the money.
Extra money could be lost
Bad news story number four is that the government’s 2019 Spending Review is not far away and, if the pupil premium is to continue after 2020, the school system will need to be able to justify the £12 billion or so spent on pupil premium since 2011.
We must be able to demonstrate how much it has helped to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and close the gap with their better-off peers.
Spending the pupil premium on other things and not improving the lot of disadvantaged young people are the quickest ways to losing the extra funding from 2020 onwards.
None of this is to deny the enormous funding problems faced by schools. But high impact interventions to help disadvantaged pupils overcome the barriers to learning they face do not have to be expensive.
At a time of stretched budgets, school leaders and governors should be looking – in places like the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit – at the high-impact, low-cost strategies that are shown by evidence to make the biggest impact.
In addition to the Toolkit, national reviews of successful practice with pupil premium have produced considerable evidence of what works best.
Here are 25 low-cost ways to spend the pupil premium and make the maximum impact:
- An ethos of attainment for all pupils - high aspirations and expectations for all
- An unerring focus on high quality teaching
- 100 per cent buy-in from all staff, with all staff conveying positive and aspirational messages to disadvantaged pupils
- Identify the main barriers to learning for disadvantaged pupils
- Frequently monitor the progress of every disadvantaged pupil
- When a pupil’s progress slows, put interventions in place rapidly
- Deploy the best staff to support disadvantaged pupils – developing the skills of existing teachers and TAs
- Collect, analyse and use data relating to individual pupils and groups
- Evaluate the effectiveness of teaching assistants and, if necessary, improve this through training and better deployment
- Use evidence (especially the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit) to decide on which strategies are likely to be most effective in overcoming the barriers to learning of disadvantaged pupils. High-impact, low-cost strategies include the following seven strands:
- Mastery learning
- Reading comprehension
- Collaborative learning
- Oral language interventions
- Peer tutoring
- Replace some 1:1 support with small group work
- Evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and make adjustments as necessary
- Staff can agree that when they mark a set of books, they mark the books of disadvantaged pupils first
- In-depth training for all staff on chosen strategies
- Teachers should know which pupils are eligible for pupil premium
- Use performance management to reinforce the importance of pupil premium impact
- Train governors on pupil premium
- Have a senior leader in charge of pupil premium spending and impact
Pupil premium is not a perfect definition of disadvantage, but it has proved to be a good way in which additional funding is channelled into every school and has made a difference to the lives of many of our most disadvantaged learners.
School leaders and teachers with a strong moral purpose have used the pupil premium grant to make a big impact on progress and attainment.
Adopting some of these high-impact, low-cost strategies in all schools will maintain the momentum of school improvement during the funding squeeze and make a big difference where it matters most.
For more details of successful pupil premium strategies, visit my blogs at John Dunford Consulting.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford
For more Tes columns by John, visit his back catalogue.