Justifying your Pupil Premium spending

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 11/3/15.


It is essential that schools are able to justify their decisions over how to spend the Pupil Premium when inspectors come calling. Daniel Sobel offers some simple, yet effective approaches.

It is neither unreasonable nor unusual to have to justify what you do with a pot of money – if you are in the public sector. If taxpayers’ money is to be used in a certain way, it seems fair to qualify and defend this decision: How will it be used? What is the return on investment?

Such questions are neither complex nor esoteric, but can appear irrelevant and perhaps even foreign for school leaders when making pedagogic decisions. Many heads have told me that inclusion costs significant amounts of time and money and I believe for us to become truly inclusive in our classrooms we have to address this attitude.

When conducting Pupil Premium or SEN reviews, my associates and I frequently find that schools are haemorrhaging resources on inappropriate and low-value outcomes.

For example, commonly a school may spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds on poorly trained and badly managed teaching assistants. We ask the same three questions every time:

  • What issue did you identify?
  • What action did you take?
  • What impact did it have?

More often than not, we find there is an inadequate measure of impact of interventions and nearly always lack of strategic thinking about how to maximise the impact.

I will stay away from the important ethical questions surrounding financial accountability in a free educational system, although I think it is one which just isn’t discussed enough.

Instead, in this article, I will summarise some key points from my online Pupil Premium Handbook, which explains in great detail how to justify your expenditure and all of the aspects of strategy and data analysis that you need as a school leader.

Justify what exactly?

I am not sure when this phrase first came into use in school leadership, but it has become a partner to the other catchphrase of our educational era: “demonstrating the impact” – see my previous Pupil Premium article for Headteacher Update (Demonstrating Pupil Premium Impact, January 2015 – see link below).

I think it is worth deconstructing this phrase to clarify what this does and doesn’t mean. It is certainly not a scrutiny to the penny – not least because no-one has the time, let alone the requisite mix of skills, to do this.

No-one is going to ask why you spent £500 on this provision or £1,000 on that rather than adopting a cheaper approach.

Rather, justifying your spending is simply making sure that the decisions you make around money to achieve certain goals with your free school meals (FSM) or SEN cohort are sensible and considered.

In short, it has nothing really to do with the cash, but everything to do with how well you can demonstrate your thinking.

Justify to whom? Communicating your successes

There are a variety of stakeholders who need to look at the same data but from different perspectives. This belies the need to continuously celebrate your successes and to draw upon a variety of formats to celebrate your success.

There are two easy forms of demonstrating success which actually go the longest way and are the least drawn upon by schools. First is the local media, which constantly seeks heart-warming stories.

One school told me about how they spent some Pupil Premium funds on taking a group of students who were disengaged with maths to the Lake District for a week of fresh air, exercise, seeing the world and fun maths every day.

They returned genuinely enthused and performed well in their maths tests. Unfortunately, the school missed the opportunity to celebrate this success with their community in the local press.

The second most commonly missed (yet simple) opportunity for schools to communicate their success is on a board in their entrance hall, which tells of all the innovative ways the school has spent their Pupil Premium funds.

Obviously, this needs to be done anonymously and carefully, but a hallmark of outstanding schools is that they tend to quite literally write their successes all over the school, and highlight everything from trips to provisions, from clubs to the achievements of their alumni.

A two-stage process

“Just focus on the impact” and “forget about the impact because it is irrelevant”. What I mean is, justifying your spending is a two-stage process: before (while considering what interventions to apply) and after (when evaluating what happened).

Before – focus on the outcome before choosing your provisions. A common mistake is to misread the underlying issue and to attempt to solve a by-product.

If an identified cohort is not engaging with their English lessons, before setting them up with a well-known computer-based booster programme, think about whether this will really have an impact on their engagement with classroom learning. Increased literacy skills are not the main result you are seeking to engender.

After – manage your and others’ expectations that even the best provisions will not ensure 100 per cent success. I have encountered excellent provisions where the sought impact was not achieved, despite the efforts and resources spent by the school to include them.

If you can demonstrate your effort and your thinking, you should not be held responsible for the unfortunate lack of positive outcomes. This is not true on a whole-school perspective, but is very much so for individuals.

Quality over quantity

An intervention can succeed or fail based on how well it is managed, implemented and resourced. Returning to my early example of teaching assistants, a school might employ a large number of teaching assistants but omit to train, manage and support them well.

I would argue that it is better to work with half the number of teaching assistants, but train them brilliantly. Otherwise, what might appear to be a wise decision by putting a teaching assistant into every classroom might be hard to justify if the desired impact is unachievable due to poor support and supervision.

Whole-school vs individual

If I am to become convinced you have spent your money well then this has to occur on two levels – the whole school as well as the individual level.

The obvious approach to demonstrating your work with individuals is through case studies, although the key ingredients are easy to miss especially when you can easily get bogged down in the complexities of a case.

Similarly, on a macro level, it is easy to over-generalise and lack substance. This brings me back to the three golden questions that should structure all articulations of your strategy:

  • What issue did you identify?
  • What action did you take?
  • What impact did it have?

This formula is true on both a whole-school and an individual level. For example, student A presents with five issues, you take action with three provisions, and the impact was X, Y and Z.

A real-life example

Student A:

  • Presenting issue: Difficulty in language acquisition (20 per cent of new words).
  • Action: Pre- and over-learning sessions.
  • Cost (£): Four 30-minute teaching assistant sessions per week, reinforced at home.
  • Impact: Acquired 75 per cent of the previous term’s new curriculum words.


  • Presenting issue: 85 students present difficulty in language acquisition.
  • Action: Purchase two days per week of speech and language support to train teachers and teaching assistants for a term in pre- and over-learning.
  • Cost: 24 sessions with a speech and language therapist.
  • Impact: 17 staff and 12 teaching assistants confidently use pre- and over-learning with a good understanding.

Though these examples are from different perspectives, they employ the same formula. You do not have to rigidly stick to this format, but something similar will demonstrate how you are aligning your provision decisions with the identified needs.

Getting the details right

The devil really is in the detail: if you haven’t accurately identified the issues, you can’t hope to address the real gaps. I have come across too many schools that are confident about their provision, but whose assessment procedures, on closer inspection, are in fact flawed. Usually this is due to a lack of clear entry and exit criteria for interventions and robust assessments of students’ needs. This is true regardless of their Ofsted grade, as this requires lifting up the bonnet and inspecting files.

Therefore, to go beyond the usual expectations of the simplistic Ofsted criteria and the myopic attitude of hard data-based judgements, a quality justification of approach and systems can be found within the soft data – looking at how engagement, positivity and esteem have been affected.

Concluding thoughts

Justifying your spend is actually easier than schools think. The challenge, as ever, is in selecting and communicating the key information.

The simple formula above clearly demonstrates a process. Ask your stakeholders – especially your parents – for feedback about whether the information you give them is meaningful, and use their guidance to help you to clarify and share your successes. In doing so, you will not only publicly and confidently justify your spending, but also share your successes and best practice with your community and other schools.

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