This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 10/6/15.
It’s the question all schools ask, but if there was a provision that would guarantee narrowing the attainment gap then you would have heard of it by now. There isn’t. However, Daniel Sobel discusses some of the most creative and inspiring uses of the Pupil Premium that he has come across.
A common question I get when delivering Pupil Premium reviews is: what should we be spending the money on? I believe that when interventions and provisions address the root and cause of an issue directly, rather than the end results, then they are often successful. The problem is that this is a hard-to-define formula.
In this article, I will demonstrate the most effective approaches to narrowing the gap that I have come across. By describing and examining their processes, I hope it will enable you to apply the thinking as opposed to copying the exact idea, which may not be relevant for your school. I will also demonstrate the process I go through with schools when carrying out a review to enable them to arrive at their own bespoke approach.
There is one thing you could do
At one of our regular team best practice sharing meetings, I asked the Inclusion Expert associates if they had to pick, what one intervention would they choose which would have a maximum impact on the narrowing the gap in all schools in the country?
There was a resounding agreement among us that if all schools did “pre-learning” and “over-learning” we would see a massive closing of the attainment gap. This one action, if done well, enables students from almost the full spectrum of learning issues to gain an advantage in their learning – from those with speech and language issues to dyslexic students, from shy learners or those with attention deficit disorder.
Interestingly, a lot of outstanding schools drill vocab. I think this solves a problem without them even necessarily being aware of it. A lot of what the GCSE and indeed SATs actually test require students to have acquired and recall language. Such fundamental learning processes are not picked up in the battery of tests we put children through, such as CATs and reading comprehension.
These test comprehension and cognition, but a student with language acquisition and/or recall issues might be able to read excellently or pass a cognitive test with flying colours. I often find that students are easily misdiagnosed, such as those who are supposed to have problems with maths actually have no issues concerning number bonds at all but struggle in picking up the complex language. Pre-learning and over-learning could be the closest thing to a panacea that I can think of.
Don’t buy 30 bikes
Sometime ago, I wrote about how a school in Sheffield had bought their student a bike because they struggled in maths. I have had schools respond to this example by proposing a purchase of 20 bicycles – but this misses the point of how this specific intervention was identified as relevant. This pupil was struggling in maths. Instead of immediately putting additional maths support in place, the school looked at the cause more carefully. In fact the student was always late to first period – which was maths – so he missed vital lesson time.
Rather than trying to motivate attendance using rewards or penalties, the school investigated why he was always late. He kept missing his bus because he was a young carer for two younger siblings. Like all carers, this pupil found getting out of the house in the morning a struggle.
The school understood that there are two big “nos” that you avoid when meeting the needs of a young carer: 1) don’t take away their break times – they really need down time when they are off duty, and the social connections they can make during break are vital and 2) protect their self-esteem – if you put them into a low set or remedial group they will be likely to feel that they are “bad” at that subject.
The reason why I herald this as the best case of interventions I have seen is because the school took the opportunity to look beyond what could easily have been the “standard” response to the problem. They spoke to the student, his parents and the supporting social worker and didn’t make assumptions about the best way to respond to the presenting issue of poor performance in maths.
In addition, and equally impressive, the school managed the expectations of the other students who didn’t get jealous and demand a bike for themselves. I think when a school can identify the real issue behind the attainment gap and address that then they will see outstanding results. I hope this explains how investigating cause and effect and tackling the root issues really inform your work to identify effective interventions.
No more maths, just take them on holiday
A common Pupil Premium problem schools report is engaging small cohorts of boys in maths. The issues are more attitudinal than ability-based, such as poor relationships with their teachers and continuous low-level behaviour. One school tackled this problem by using Pupil Premium funds to enable the maths department to take their identified cohort on a five-day trip to the Lake District for some fun and maths. By the time they had returned, they had bonded with the maths teachers and also caught up some very basic maths that was holding them back. This school sought to heal the heart of the issue as opposed to just dealing with the symptom.
Karate for breakfast
A first step in analysing the free school meals (FSM) data is to work out all of the intersections with other groups which include SEN, gifted and talented, English as an additional language etc. Common groups often left out of this list is: how many Pupil Premium students are also regularly late, often absent or under child protection – or combinations of these. Lateness is a common issue and one school decided to provide a wholesome breakfast at 8am – this increased punctuality and morning school engagement manifold.
Another school tried this and it failed miserably, there was no uptake. After speaking with the students they found out that providing something like kick-boxing or karate would get them to school for 8am and they did that with great success.
I am most impressed when I can see a student comment on a provision report about how it had broader benefit to their engagement and enthusiasm for school. Just providing additional curriculum support doesn’t achieve this level of school engagement.
Teach them Frankenstein
Schools often show me reading comprehension groups run as a withdrawal lesson parallel to the English lessons. The problem is, of course, that although the students’ reading skills are increasing, their ability to participate in the mainstream classroom is not, as they are studying a completely different story.
Another school took the approach of getting the classroom teacher to work with their teaching assistant and with the support of the SENCO to develop a short reading comprehension course based on the book they were reading in class, which happened to be Frankenstein. When I observed the class, I saw two of the SEN cohort volunteer to answer questions and give their views.
The added bonus was that the teacher was in charge of the withdrawal too, as opposed to not knowing where they were going and what they were doing in isolation in an SEN room down the corridor.
Sometimes the best thing to do is not to purchase things but to invest in additional time and support for your staff.
Aspire to aspire
On a short trip to America I saw a group of 30 students at an aquarium who must have been about 11-years-old. They all wore a tee-shirt that said “I promise to go to college”. Their four group leaders wore bright orange caps that had the words “I believe in you” emblazoned on them. My initial thought was that this was quite indoctrinating but probably quite powerful.
I wouldn’t advocate this approach but it highlights the lengths we might need to go to in order to develop aspiration, especially with students from families that have experienced multi-generational unemployment. I remember taking one student to Oxford to explore the possibility of doing physics. He had just got straight A*s and wanted to quit school to do an electrician course.
I don’t value the hierarchy of one life course as opposed to another, but I was bothered by his perceived lack of choice – he didn’t believe university was open to him or that he could belong there. I realised, taking him at 16 was too late and the influencing factor was family attitudes to career aspiration. Some schools have combatted this issue by taking parent groups to universities and introducing them to people who went on to college from their postcode.
The principle is illustrated well by the following, admittedly secondary phase, example: one school decided to prioritise work experience but they were not going to accept the bog-standard set up where their students made the coffee and did the photocopying, as they felt that this simply confirmed their own self-limiting aspirations. Instead, they had meetings with individual businesses and asked them to experiment by allowing students to closely shadow senior executives (inviting them to meetings, asking their opinions, listening in to phone calls, and getting a taste of management and senior leadership). This worked out well not just for the students, but also for the businesses, who found it very worthwhile.
Connect the dots
If you meet with your stakeholders from the postcode your school is in and they advise the key to addressing the gap could be parental engagement, promoting aspiration or developing oracy and confidence then apply these across the school, not just with individual interventions but throughout the curriculum and pastoral aspects of school life.
One school wanted to address vocabulary acquisition beyond the classroom and had a word of the day in the entrance hall. Class teachers asked their students to come up with new words to share with the class each day. Another school made sure the parents of their most concerning FSM cohort were getting positive feedback about their child once or twice a week in order to promote parental engagement.
I hope the above examples demonstrates that any individual intervention is only as good as the extent to which it addresses the real need. The phenomenon of the gap itself involves multiple issues and to think they can all be solved simply by additional literacy or numeracy is missing the point.
Each school faces their own unique challenges regarding poverty but I have experienced tremendous benefit that comes from working with groups of schools who have begun to address their gap not in isolation but with the co-support and joint procurement of local schools serving the same community, especially when this is done across phase and between link-schools.