Getting more bang for your buck

14th September 2012 at 01:00
As schools gain #163;1.25bn of pupil premium money, a study rates the cost and impact of methods of raising attainment

In this academic year, schools will spend #163;1.25 billion on disadvantaged children, allocated to them through the pupil premium. But what is the best way of making sure this funding has the maximum benefit for pupils?

Research published this summer showed that using this money to fund well-known strategies such as smaller class sizes or hiring more teaching assistants might not be the most effective approach. The study, by academics at Durham University commissioned by the Sutton Trust Education Endowment Foundation, gives teachers guidance on what works best to improve attainment. A toolkit produced by the academics summarises existing research and ranks strategies by cost and effectiveness.

Researchers rated the different approaches according to their potential impact on attainment, their cost, their applicability and the strength of evidence about how they worked. They were selected because they were commonly used by schools or suggested by teachers. Here are some of the highlights:

Ability grouping

Average impact on children's progress: minus or plus one month.

Summary: very low or negative impact for very low or no cost.

While there may be some benefits for higher attaining pupils, these are largely outweighed by the direct and indirect negative effects for mid-range and lower performing learners. Ability grouping has a negative effect on disadvantaged pupils.


- Groups should be based on learners' needs rather than organisational convenience.

- Flexible within-class grouping is preferable to tracking or streaming.

- Where pupils are organised in groups by attainment, these groups should be regularly reorganised on the basis of progress made. Success should be attributed to effort, not ability.


Average impact on children's progress: plus nine months.

Summary: very high impact for low cost.

Research shows feedback can have very high effects on learning. But other studies show it can have negative effects and make things worse. Providing effective feedback is challenging. It should be specific, accurate and clear. It should compare what a learner is doing right now with what they have done wrong before.


- Feedback should encourage and support further effort.

- It should be given sparingly so that it is meaningful: too much feedback can stop learners working out what they need to do themselves.

- It should be about what is right more often than about what is wrong.


Average impact on children's progress: plus five months.

Summary: moderate impact for very low or no cost.

There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving pupils' attainment (some studies show up to eight months' positive impact on attainment). Overall, the general benefits are likely to be modest if homework is more routinely set. There is clear evidence that homework is helpful at secondary level, but there is much less evidence of benefit at primary level.


- Planned and focused activities are more beneficial than homework that is regular but routine.

- Homework activities should be integrated with activities in lessons.

- The purpose of homework should be made explicit.

- Pupils should receive feedback on homework that is specific, timely and relates to the purpose.

- A variety of tasks with different levels of challenge is likely to be beneficial.

- There is an optimum level of between one and two hours per school day.

One-to-one tuition

Average impact on children's progress: plus five months.

Summary: moderate impact for very high cost.

Evidence indicates that in areas such as reading and maths, one-to-one tuition can enable pupils to catch up with their peers. It suggests pupils might make about four or five months' progress if they are involved in an intensive programme.


- One-to-one tuition can be relatively expensive. Consider other groupings for intensive support, such as one-to-two or even one-to-three.

- Short periods (five to 10 weeks) of intensive sessions (up to an hour, three or four times a week) tend to have greater impact.

- A qualified teacher is likely to achieve greater progress than support staff or volunteers.

- Pupils and regular class teachers may need support at the end of tutoring to ensure impact is sustained once they return to normal classes.

Reducing class sizes

Average impact on children's progress: plus three months.

Summary: moderate impact for very high cost.

Overall, the benefits are not particularly large or clear until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15. There is evidence that, when done successfully, it can improve the behaviour, attitudes and attainment of pupils, and these benefits can persist for a number of years (from early primary school through to key stage 3).

However, above that size of class, making reductions is less likely to yield benefits. There is some evidence that reducing class sizes can be more effective when teachers are also given professional development to learn and develop teaching skills and approaches.


- Smaller classes will not make a difference to learning unless the teacher or pupils do something differently in the smaller class.

- Deploying staff (including teaching assistants) so that teachers can work more intensively with smaller groups may be worth exploring.

- Reducing class sizes for younger children may provide longer-term benefits.


Find the Sutton Trust Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit at:

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