How should schools spend the pupil premium?

This article was originally posted in The Guardian 22/7/14.


Understanding the complex problems students face at home and in the classroom will help school leaders use funds effectively.

The truth is there is no simple answer to the question of how the pupil premium should be spent.

Many schools have put the funding to effective use by gaining a deep understanding of their students and developing a tailored and personalised approach. Below are some of the most creative approaches we’ve come across, highlighted in the Pupil Premium 2014 awards.

In all these examples, a generic approach, such as setting up additional classes for those who need extra help, could have been justified to an Ofsted inspector but would not have addressed all the underlying issues affecting a student’s work. Here’s what was done, with advice on how a similar approach could work for you:

Road bike for a year 7 pupil falling behind (£250)

John’s story: I was always late for the first lesson coming across town on the earliest possible bus. The first lesson of every day is maths, so I never got the chance to keep up with the work. I was falling behind until my teacher said that the school could lend me a bike to get to school. I leave later and have a dynamo for lights in the winter. I’m calmer when I sit down, no longer getting stressed about being late.

The hard data would have shown nothing more than a drop in John’s academic performance so many schools would probably just have provided additional support. But this would have failed to address the underlying problem. It would also probably be timetabled after school, which may have made John think the school wanted him to lose out on free time.

By liaising with those working with John, including his support worker, the school found a solution to the issue. The school’s management of other students who didn’t receive a bike, and of parents who might have complained about unfair allocation of resources, was also impressive. The school prioritised communication, and created an atmosphere where addressing individual pupil concerns was encouraged.

A nutritionist for a lethargic year 5 student (£120)

John’s story: I was always tired by break time and drank sugary drinks to give me energy. Then I couldn’t settle in class and my teeth went orange. The lady from the hospital came to talk to me about what I ate and I started a food diary and noted when I was tired and hyper. Now I have slow-energy-release bars for breakfast and I no more fizzy drinks on school days.

There is an argument that nutrition management is beyond a school’s responsibility. But this school was able to achieve significant improvement in John’s engagement with the curriculum by non-pedagogic means: the issues of the home were addressed leading to improvements in learning.

Maths tutor for a year 10 pupil who has gaps in learning (£1,200)

Jim’s story: My mum and dad are in the army so we’ve lived all over the world. I’ve been tested loads of times for English and maths; I’ve always done OK in English, but every maths teacher does things differently so I have gaps and often use different methods. I got moved to one of the lowest groups, which really upset me. Then the school organised a tutor for me once a week in the evening.

Service children are recipients of the premium (at a lower rate of £300), but their issues are typically different from free school meals students. This is a classic case of gaps in learning resulting from a pupil constantly moving between schools. The school’s use of its funding shows a clear understanding of the issue affecting learning.

Shoes and clothing for a child in year 3 (£50)

Angus’ story: My dad isn’t really around, and I just live with my mum. She can’t always afford to buy me new clothes and I often get my older siblings’ clothes. My football shoes always wear out quickly and once my shoes were so full of holes that I came to school in my slippers. Someone in the school bought me a new pair of shoes, and a few days later also got me some football boots and clothes for PE.

This isn’t just a heartwarming story; a senior Ofsted employee has told me that she and her colleagues are always impressed when schools prioritise the basic human needs of students.

Curriculum adaptations for pupils in year 10-11 (£500)

A significant number of pupils going into key stage 4 options were on the spectrum of autism and had additional learning and communication needs. The school introduced small animal care course, accredited by City and Guilds. They paid towards making the compound safe, as well as towards the upkeep of animals such as ducks, chickens, and dogs.

Autism is a spectrum so while there are some general approaches, there are no catch-all provisions. In this example, the school worked with specialists, parents and the student council to work out how to best include their autistic students. A vital ingredient of inclusion is winning over the community and including the whole school in your strategies.

Individual interventions like these require careful planning and working with a range of people in and around school. It is a three-stage process:

1. Find the best people to work with. These are the individuals involved with the pupil in question – from parents to social workers or local religious leaders. Anyone with an insight into the challenges the pupil faces is useful when planning your intervention.

2. Research individual students. Look for the issues leading to difficulties in class. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy process, but many pupil premium managers rely on data about the whole class and look for blanket solutions rather than talking to individual students and teachers.

3. Plan your response. Most of the examples above involve simple interventions, but each is targeted to respond to the issues.

This process is well worth the effort: targeted interventions are usually cheaper than blanket approaches. Deciding on spending behind the closed doors of a senior leadership meeting won’t be successful.

Daniel Sobel and Inclusion Expert Associates has launched the Pupil Premium Handbook, an online learning programme. Find out more about the awards via PupilPremium.

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