From the Editor - Use or lose the pupil premium, but use it wisely

27th July 2012 at 01:00

We know a lot about ourselves these days. We know that the happiest place in Britain is the Orkneys and the grumpiest is South Wales. We know that life expectancy decreases by 12 years on a 20-minute tube journey from Lancaster Gate to Mile End. And we know that every British woman owns on average 34 pairs of knickers.

When it comes to what works in education and what doesn't, however, we know a lot less. There is no museum of education, no recognised repository of professional wisdom, no accessible body of knowledge a teacher can consult and trust. There is plenty of research, but not all of it good, and some of what is good has been forgotten.

This state of affairs has existed for so long that it usually passes without comment. But at a time of rising expectations and decreasing budgets, can schools really afford to strive blindly? The Sutton Trust and its sister organisation the Education Endowment Foundation think not. They have used research evidence to assess how schools can best spend the cash they get from the pupil premium to ensure children make progress.

Their initial conclusions aren't encouraging (see pages 12-13). It seems schools are behaving a bit like those sellers on TV property programmes who can't understand why no one wants to buy their houses even though they've spent a fortune on fake stone cladding and pink bathrooms.

Splashing out on extra teaching assistants or reducing class sizes, for instance, are the educational equivalents of Anaglypta ceilings and Formica kitchen tops: not the best use of money. Unfortunately, a lot of schools are opting for them, tempted no doubt by the fact that they are a highly visible way of showing that they are spending pupil premium cash at the chalk face rather than sprucing up the reception area or repairing the boiler. One-to-one tuition, too, is popular and can be potent. But it is Also expensive and not necessarily as cost-effective as other strategies.

The best methods of achieving the greatest progress for most pupils are a lot less epic - for example, good pupil feedback, encouraging children to plan and evaluate their own learning and peer-to-peer tuition (the complete list is at uktoolkit). They are also relatively cheap. So why aren't they used more widely?

The main problem, apart from a lack of awareness, is that they are not easy to get right. Take pupil self-evaluation. There is no simple trick of teaching kids how to monitor and manage their own learning. A good teacher will know when pupils no longer need as much support as they did and when they are ready to learn independently. But there isn't a handy, one-size-fits-all checklist. It's the same with effective feedback, a simple concept that is hard to implement well.

There is much that we don't know. What really are the most effective ways of helping disadvantaged children, for instance? And some of what we know isn't easy to apply. But as schools grapple with the best ways to spend their cash, there is one sobering certainty. If the system as a whole can't demonstrate that the pupil premium helps pupils to progress, those grasping folk in the Treasury may be tempted to claw it back.

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