Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, writes:
Redcar, Manchester, the Wirral, Broadstairs and Camden: not a bad travel log for a week. As a judge for this year’s Pupil Premium Awards, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some great schools across the country and see first-hand how they are using their pupil premium funding in innovative and effective ways. In Redcar, parents talked with pride and appreciation about the way they have been involved in their children’s learning. In Moss Side, we saw a school using some of their pupil premium to employ brilliant teachers to provide additional reading lessons full of conversation and debate. In the Wirral, teachers had looked at the evidence and decided that marginal shifts in class size wouldn’t make a difference; they’ve radically reduced numbers and adapted their teaching to deliver personalised provision. These are just three of the many and varied examples of outstanding practice we saw throughout the judging process. It was inspiring to see how these had been brought about by a shared commitment to improving the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. One strategy that was common to all the schools we visited was an engagement with research and a desire to use evidence to inform teaching. When we launched the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit in 2012, we hoped that the accessible summary of research would help decision-makers to decide how they spend their pupil premium in the most effective ways. In 2015 it’s used by nearly half of all school leaders.
At the EEF, we work with one in five of the country’s schools to trial and evaluate cost-effective methods for raising the attainment of the most disadvantaged pupils. Since 2011 and through 94 projects, we’ve helped more than 600,000 pupils in over 4,800 schools across England. In April we’ll announce six more studies to find more evidence for what works. One of the most promising projects we’ve funded was an initiative delivered by the Calderdale Effectiveness Partnership that cost just over £50 per pupil. Designed to use self-regulation to improve writing skills, the project provided children with memorable experiences such as a trip to zoo, and gave them a structured approach to writing about it. Pupils made, on average, an additional nine months' progress; the impact on free school meals pupils was even greater, at 18 months. We’re now testing the project’s effectiveness on a larger scale, working with 7,200 pupils in Leeds and Lincolnshire, and are hugely excited by its potential. We’ve seen teachers’ appetite for evidence grow and there are signs that this approach is working. Data released by the Department for Education last December showed that two-thirds of Year 6 pupils on free school meals gained a level 4 in reading, writing and maths last year, reducing the attainment gap to 16 percentage points. In simple terms, more young people are starting secondary school with good literacy and numeracy skills.
The Pupil Premium Awards allow us to recognise and reward the outstanding work that is being done by schools to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It’s absolutely vital that we hold up the winners as examples and give other schools the chance to learn from their successes. Finding effective ways to do this on a larger scale is one of the challenges we face in the drive to raise standards. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we do need better systems in place for sharing and collaborating. The government recognises this, too, and has stated that schools should be incentivised to do this well and rewarded if they succeed.
The EEF’s "families of schools" database, launched earlier this year, groups similar schools together on factors including prior attainment, percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals and the number of children who speak English as an additional language. For the first time, it allows schools to understand the size and nature of their attainment gap in relation to other similar institutions and to learn from the best-performing schools in their family.
There is still a long way to go to break the pervasive link between family income and educational achievement, but if the desire for evidence and enthusiasm for collaboration I saw in the schools I visited are anything to go by, we are certainly on the right path.