Championing the disadvantaged: The UK’s pupil premium

Not for Sir John Dunford the option of a quiet retirement. After a long career as a teacher, including 16 years as a head teacher, as well as a stint leading a high-profile education union, the prospect of stepping off the treadmill would have been appealing for many. Dunford, however, was not about to down tools.

Shortly after he began his ‘retirement’, the pupil premium (PP) was introduced by the UK’s coalition government. It provides extra funding for schools to support each pupil from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background between the ages of 5 and 16. Its aim is to close the attainment gap between them and their peers by improving their academic performance. Two years later, Dunford was asked by the government to step back into the arena to fulfil a new role as its ‘pupil premium champion’.

“My role was to act as a conduit between government and school leaders,” he explains. “On the one hand, disseminating good practice to schools and, on the other hand, feeding back to government any issues about the policy that were being raised by school leaders.” The opportunity to help unlock potential and improve the life chances of disadvantaged children was too good to turn down.

The pupil premium: A new system of support

A quick glance at the statistics underlines why the PP was introduced. Despite the previous government deploying a variety of well-funded initiatives to support disadvantaged pupils, the evidence showed that, with the notable exception of London and pockets of good practice in individual schools elsewhere, the desired impact had failed to materialise. For example, research from The Sutton Trust revealed that, on average, highly able pupils who are eligible for the PP achieved half a grade less than other highly able pupils.

Reflecting the government’s view that money is better spent by those on the frontline than those at the centre, schools are free to spend the PP as they see fit. However, they are accountable for two outcomes: the impact they have on the attainment of pupils from low-income families and the other target groups; and the extent to which they reduce the attainment gap between the disadvantaged and others.

Although one might think that schools would welcome this extra freedom, Dunford says that they were in need of advice about how to spend the funds most effectively. “The department didn”t send out any guidance, but schools were screaming out for it they had this extra money and didn”t know how it should best be deployed,” he recalls. So there was clearly a niche that needed filling which is where Dunford came in.

“The way I did the job was keeping in close touch with the PP team in the department to keep them up to speed with what is happening in schools, and speaking to as many school leaders and governors as I could,” he explains. “In two years I did more than 150 conferences and spoke to about 15,000 people, which demonstrated the huge appetite to learn about good practice. I was focused mainly on targeted areas where the performance of disadvantaged children was very poor. The department drew up a league table of local authorities so I could see where the good practice was in reducing the gap between disadvantaged youngsters and others.”

There is no question that Dunford’s past life as a schoolteacher stood him in good stead when it came to giving advice. School staff were more receptive to someone of his ilk than to a classic Whitehall civil servant who had not experienced the reality of life as a teacher. “I did one pupil premium conference before I took up the role,” he recalls. “The speaker before me was a civil servant from the department and the conference evaluations were terrible, not least because he had little public-speaking experience. I realised I could add value to this agenda taking school assemblies and talking to school leaders was what I had done for over 20 years.”

Strategies for success

As a result of his conversations and the number of the schools he visited, Dunford identified what he believed were the most effective ways for teachers to maximise the impact of the PP. This wasn”t about telling head teachers what to do in their schools, but describing how they could go about making the right decisions for their disadvantaged pupils. “It was crucial to individualise the PP to each school it wasn”t something that could be cut-and-pasted from one school to another,” he adds.

His second strand of advice was that head teachers should decide what their outcomes should be and set success criteria accordingly. “They needed to know what they wanted to achieve with this money,” he says. “Raising attainment of disadvantaged children, closing the gap, improving their attendance and behaviour, increasing the participation of their parents in their education and so on these are all worthy targets to pursue. But underpinning all this has to be high-quality teaching. Evidence shows that disadvantaged children are disproportionately hampered by bad teaching.”

Dunford also advised schools to start looking up and out. Advice was there if they looked, ranging from online sources to conclusions from school inspections. One key source was the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), set up and funded by the government to develop and spread evidence of what works. The EEF has summarised and published existing best practice in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which is now used by 64% of school leaders.

Impact achieved?

As with education reforms the world over, it remains too soon to say whether the PP has fulfilled its objectives. The government expects the full impact of funding won’t be felt until 2023 but early signs are promising. In a report last year, the National Audit Office found that the PP has increased school leaders” focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, with 94% of school leaders surveyed saying they targeted support at disadvantaged pupils, compared with 57% before the creation of the policy.

Dunford often quotes Andreas Schleicher, the OECD”s director of education, who praised England”s PP policy, saying that it gave a welcome degree of autonomy to schools for spending decisions, backed by a strong emphasis on publicising the evidence of what works.

Dunford who stepped down after two years and countless hours on the country’s rail network believes that the social, moral and educational case for giving additional support to underprivileged children remains as strong as ever. The task now is to spotlight what works and spread the word there are always more lives to turn around.

“With the extra resources of the PP and a strong determination to improve the life chances of all disadvantaged young people, schools have shown that progress can be made,” he says. “The evidence of what works is there for all to see, but it needs to be disseminated. If it is, then pupils, teachers and society as a whole will reap huge benefits.”

 

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