The students behind the data: a guide to pupil premium planning

This article was originally posted in The Guardian 27/5/14.


From being strategic to identifying the needs of individuals, here are five ways school leaders can make the most of funding for free school meals students.

One of the biggest current concerns for senior leaders is how to manage students who are eligible for free school meals (FSM). It’s at the top of Ofsted’s checklist and has become a weapon in the armory of what some headteachers call the tyranny of judgment.

A students’ academic achievement is hugely influenced by their background and level of advantage or disadvantage. The relatively recent introduction of the pupil premium was a significant shift in educational aims in England, moving from the idea of universal entitlement to one of a minimum acceptable standard with no excuse for lack of achievement linked to disadvantage.

We run the risk, however, of viewing schemes like the pupil premium as a panacea both for educational standards and the social disadvantages affecting FSM pupils. There is a risk that the pupil premium could become a blunt instrument that solves a teaching and learning problem with an economic lever. This can only be indirect at best; increasing resources to schools according to the number of FSM pupils is a shotgun approach. Although much of the funding may find its target, some will miss and some will be aimed at the wrong place. Only a focused use of the premium and careful evaluation will increase its efficacy.

General conclusions suggest it is more about the quality of intervention rather than the quantity. There is also helpful evidence about how achievement for all students can be attained, such as through the Learning Toolkit. This toolkit indicates that quality of teaching is of central importance, not our current focus on the quantity of progress that children make.

We also need to be aware that FSM can miss out whole cohorts: it’s not necessarily the case that all disadvantaged pupils are registered for FSM. Some may be significantly affected by disadvantage, but may not be eligible. Some may be eligible, but have not signed up. This latter group is likely to increase with universal provision of free lunches – what is the incentive to fill in the forms if your child is going to receive a free meal anyway?

Equally, we shouldn’t assume that all FSM students underperform. A significant proportion in each school may be high achievers, though disadvantaged by their circumstances. These pupils are likely to be less visible in terms of their attainment profile compared with their non-FSM peers. Nor should we equate FSM with either special educational needs (SEN) or poor behaviour: overlaps may occur, but they aren’t universal and we must take care not to mis-label pupils.

With such concerns in mind, here are four tips to help you plan your pupil premium budget:

Be strategic

Too many schools urgently race ahead without a vision in place. The task of addressing the core issues around FSM is a marathon not a sprint. Ofsted wants you to deliver a plan that is relevant for your community; they won’t expect you to deliver the goods in two terms. Establish a cross-community panel and research the real issues by speaking with a variety of stakeholders and engage them for ideas.

Create an implementation plan

Put together a three year strategy and break that down into a carefully managed step-by-step implementation plan. Make sure all of the stakeholders are on board for supporting you along the way. Review your strategy regularly and compare your thinking with other schools in the local area. Keep a record of your research and articulate your findings in a small report that can be made available to your staff, governors, parents, local services and Ofsted.

Identify your FSM cohort with care

Students are likely to stem from multiple groups, including the sometimes overlooked group of underprivileged white British children. Carefully consider the intersectionality and crossover of groups, using as much detail as possible. Cross reference your list against the SEN register and school information management system for any further classification about your cohort. Encourage pastoral staff to look at this more detailed list and update it with their knowledge about the student’s background and particular issues. Focus on identifying and providing for the real needs behind the data and demonstrate this in a one page summary where you lay out the identified needs, action and impact.

Address pupils’ needs – not those of the school

Differentiate between the definition of FSM, low attainment or under-performance and poor behaviour. FSM students aren’t the only ones struggling or whose backgrounds put them at a disadvantage. Ask your pastoral team to find out which other students experience poverty but are not officially on the FSM list as well as those with other disadvantages, such as young carers.

Create an individualised plan for all of your looked-after children (LACs) to ensure they have maximum pastoral and in-class support as they are traditionally the lowest performing group and top of Ofsted’s special groups list. A classic mistake is to use pupil premium money to make up for inadequate teaching and you should avoid this by ensuring that the projects you spend money on are justifiably addressing the real needs of the students rather than the needs of the school.

Find out about students’ personal backgrounds

Make sure you understand students’ needs beyond the hard data and ensure you can justify the application of funds according to real needs as opposed to their assumed status. It’s useful to know about a student’s personal background. One school I have worked with had a student who cared for a relative each morning. He was always late as he only had access to a slow-moving bus. The school’s reaction? To buy him a bike. The student could now get to classes on time and his grades went up. This was a ballsy approach but it demonstrated an understanding of the student’s real needs; it was a creative answer to a problem, and was found in co-ordination with his family at home. This is in direct contrast to one school that lined up its FSM pupils and gave them each an identical pupil premium pencil case in front of their peers.

Daniel Sobel and Inclusion Expert Associates has launched the Pupil Premium Handbook, an online learning programme. Professor Steve Higgins is director of research in the School of Education at Durham University.

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