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A self-improving school system – looking out, not up

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Picture of John DunfordAs Pupil Premium Champion from 2013 to 2015 and in my work since then, I’ve been sharing effective practice from across the country for pupils who are eligible for pupil premium.

I have spoken to over 15,000 school leaders and governors at these events and I’m always struck by the appetite of people to tackle the challenge of raising attainment of disadvantaged young people and closing the gap with their peers.

Breaking the pattern

The single greatest challenge is to break the unhappy repeating pattern of poverty, academic under-achievement and wasted life chances, but there is plenty of evidence that, with thought and planning on the part of a school, the pupil premium really can make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children.

Every year the DfE highlights the most effective practice in the country through the Pupil Premium Awards. The Awards website is developing as a hub for sharing case studies – the winners from the past three years are available there and they will be joined by the 2016 winners imminently.

All the evidence and effective practice contribute to the objective that sits above inspection reports and performance tables – a robust, self-improving school system.

A growing network of teaching schools in alliances has developed in England, taking a role in the training of staff, and the raising of standards through school-to-school support. Several of the past Pupil Premium Award winners and runners-up have been teaching schools or members of alliances.

Their representative body, the Teaching Schools Council, has produced a guide to conducting pupil premium reviews, which is as useful forschools conducting self-reviews as it is for those conducting external reviews.

Every school has different needs

I know some schools have asked for guidance on spending the pupil premium – to the DfE, to Ofsted, occasionally to me.  Quite apart from the need for schools to feel empowered to take their own decisions on the use of the funding, there is no single effective solution because the needs of disadvantaged pupils in each school are different.

Schools need to carefully analyse the needs of their pupils and tailor their interventions accordingly – calling on evidence of what has worked for others – and remembering that there is no such thing as a typical pupil premium student. All have their own needs, talents and aspirations.

I set out below a process to help schools decide on how best to develop their pupil premium strategy. Evidence tells us that excellent teaching disproportionately benefits disadvantaged pupils. So high quality teaching must be at the core of all pupil premium work.

  • Step 1. The school should set an ambition for what it wants to achieve with pupil premium funding.
  • Step 2. The spending decision-making process starts with an analysis of the barriers to learning for pupil premium pupils; these might include poor literacy levels, poor attendance, low aspirations, little parental support.
  • Step 3. The school should decide on the desired outcomes of pupil premium spending. These might include raising attainment of pupil premium-eligible pupils; closing the gap between the school’s pupil premium pupils and other pupils nationally; increasing the engagement of parents with their children’s education; improving transition between phases of schooling; improving attendance; etc.
  • Step 4. Against each desired outcome, success criteria should be identified.
  • Step 5. The school should assess how successful each of its current strategies is in pursuit of the stated outcomes.
  • Step 6. The school should research the evidence of what works best, looking outwards for evidence of what works well elsewhere, and considering how it can adapt successful pupil premium strategies to meeting the needs of its pupil premium-eligible students.

Further sources of information

I recommend four places to look initially:

  • Step 7. The school should decide on the optimum range of strategies to be adopted, using the evidence it has gathered.
  • Step 8. Training for all staff. There are no short cuts to success with the new strategies.
  • Step 9. The school should monitor the progress of each pupil premium-eligible pupil frequently so interventions can be put in place quickly, if a pupil starts to fall behind.
  • Step 10. The school needs to put in a prominent place on the website an account of pupil premium spending, for example in tabular form, listing each strategy, its cost, and its impact.

With this sort of self-assessment, and the widely-available sources of effective practice available through Teaching Schools, NLEs and other system leaders, the pupil premium can be a catalyst for a vigorous self-improving sector.

Follow John on Twitter: @johndunford

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