'Phonics is the last thing on Andrew's mind – he is more concerned with worrying about when he will next get fed'

Pupil-premium funding is designed to support our most vulnerable learners, but if we don't think carefully about how it is spent, we could be letting down the children who most need support, says this teacher trainer

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Andrew always struggles in phonics sessions just before lunch.

If you stop to think about this for a moment, it isn’t really surprising. Andrew is an adopted child and, given his background of neglect and never knowing whether there would be enough for him to eat at home, phonics is probably the last thing on his mind in the run-up to his lunch break. He is more concerned with worrying about when he will next get fed.

In England and Wales, the Department for Education provides extra funding for disadvantaged pupils such as Andrew in the form of pupil-premium grants. The per-pupil rates for the 2018-19 school year are £1,320 for pupils recorded as Ever 6 free school meals (FSM), who are in Reception to Year 6; £935 for pupils in Years 7 to 11 recorded as Ever 6 FSM; and £2,300 for looked-after children, or those who have ceased to be looked after by a local authority because of adoption, a special guardianship order, a child arrangements order or a residence order.

The question is, what are we spending this additional funding on and what impact is it really having? I worry that, for children like Andrew, we might be directing our attention towards the wrong things.

How should pupil premium be spent?

Does Andrew need one-on-one phonics teaching? Another school jumper? Subsidised school trips? Or would it be even more worthwhile for someone to work with him to explain how the school cook knows how much, and what kinds, of food she will need to order to make sure every child will have something to eat.

Children with a background of trauma and loss may have many barriers to learning. Pupil-premium funding is designed to break these down, so they can learn on a more equal footing with their peers. But if all pupil-premium funding is added to the same pot without regard to how the needs of children like Andrew may be different to those receiving the grant due to their eligibility for FSM, there is a chance that we will not be providing our most vulnerable pupils with the support they truly need.

So how should we be spending this money in the case of children like Andrew?

The first priority has to be quality training for school staff on the long-lasting effects of developmental trauma and attachment difficulties. These children have experienced relationship trauma, so "healthy" relationships will be the key to their healing. If teachers and support staff are not able to understand how the brain changes in traumatic circumstances, and then use this information to better support children, the effects could be far-reaching.

Investing in key workers

Creating sensory rooms and safe spaces in which these pupils can regulate their emotions is, in my opinion, another good use of funding. For a child on "high alert", the school hall may be too noisy and overstimulating, so something as simple as giving them a quieter place to eat their lunch could help to improve outcomes.

Finally, investment in key workers is incredibly worthwhile. Children who have experienced trauma will often benefit from having a key worker to support them with transitions; help them to regulate their responses to situations; and to assist them in understanding that their parents or guardians will return to collect them later. Many children with traumatic backgrounds will view the world as unsafe (as it was according to their past experiences), and they will need someone to explain explicitly that school is a safe place – and all the ways in which school staff work to keep it that way. 

Of course, some schools will already be using pupil-premium money to provide brilliantly for vulnerable children. But when millions of pounds are being spent, we should be led by the evidence about what is making a real difference to these children. And if schools are not looking at the root of the difficulties and meeting them, there is always a danger that children like Andrew will simply slip through the cracks.

Julie Johnson is a teacher who also trains schools in supporting children with developmental trauma and attachment difficulties

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