How to spend the Pupil Premium. Maybe.

In a time where schools policy seems to swing wildly from one extreme (think wholesale structural reforms like free schools and Academies) to political interference in the minutiae of how children should be taught to read (think synthetic phonics) praise the Lord for some calm, reasonable, sanity-restoring words from the good people at the Sutton Trust.

Their latest dollop of common sense comes in the form of a guide for schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium. They keep clear of the politics, not seeking to make a judgement on whether the Premium is ever going to meet its grandiose aims: to increase social mobility, to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils and to smooth the barely-worn path from a place called ‘deprivation’ to somewhere called ‘Oxbridge’. Instead they present, in simple terms, options for schools about how to spend their cash.

It’s clear, quite early on in the report, that the authors not only engaged their brains, but – in deciding what to include in their list – also managed to plant tongues firmly in cheeks. They surely had the bone-headed traditionalists in mind – those who believe that the absence of a well-knotted, throat-gripping school tie explains just about everything that is wrong with our schools – when they explained that there is no evidence that school uniform improves ‘academic performance, behaviour or attendance’. So there!

They also slay, in a gentle academic way, some other sacred cows. Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’. And the benefits of homework are summarised as ‘modest’ at secondary school, and even less so at primary school.

But in true boffin-style, they are concerned not with the grinding of axes but with the evidence. This leads them to similarly dismiss the more cuddly teaching approaches, such as developing activities for children based on their ‘learning styles’, which in some cases has been shown to have a detrimental effect. They also have little time, purely in the context of the aims of the Pupil Premium, for reducing class sizes, after school programmes or summer schools.

More controversially, however, the Sutton Trust questions the role of Teaching Assistants who, according to studies, have ‘very small or no effects on attainment’ particularly when their main role is either to tidy up after the teacher or to provide ill-defined support to a particular child or group of children.

This finding should make schools – if they are anything like mine – think long and hard about Teaching Assistants on their pay roll and how they are matched with children who may be the beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium. What a waste if the Premium ends up aimlessly dumped in the generic pot for ‘special needs support’ – perhaps to top up the hours of a Teaching Assistant, who ends up spending her time at the photocopier or sharpening pencils.

So, to the key question: what does work?

The Sutton Trust points to three things:

First, the teacher providing effective feedback to the learner about their progress.

Second, ‘meta-cognition strategies’ – teaching approaches which ‘make learners’ thinking about learning more explicit in the classroom’.

Third, ‘peer tutoring’ where ‘learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support’.

It’s as simple as that, apparently.

What is striking about the Sutton Trust’s top three is that, put simply, they cost peanuts. Money does not need to be thrown at the problem. To make this work, there’s no need for top-of-the-range technology. Nor do you need to convert to an Academy. Or teach Latin while playing rugby (competitively of course).

The only real expenditure is on a bit of CPD which, presumably, the school would be spending anyway.

What is more interesting, though, is that these interventions bring us back to a simple truth: it is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference, done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.

One thing nags at me, however; if we take the Sutton Trust’s advice and warmly embrace the benefits of feedback, draw close to us the joys of meta-cognition and cherish the benefits of peer tutoring – wouldn’t we then do this routinely in our classrooms? Wouldn’t all our charges benefit – rich and poor, Premium and – erm – Standard? Who could argue against such an improvement, but how will this narrow the attainment gap? Perhaps it’s not so simple, after all.



Filed under Policy, Politics - general, Schools

7 responses to “How to spend the Pupil Premium. Maybe.

  1. Thank you very much indeed for this extremely helpful summary and set of reflections, and for the passion and clarity with which you write and warn, and for your delightful references to, amongst other things, the nonsense of much learning style theory and the misuse of teaching assistants. ‘It is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference,’ you say, ‘done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.’ Yes indeed. You seem to imply, though, that this costs peanuts. Do you really think that? Really good CPD, the type that really makes a difference, surely requires a large investment of time, and therefore of money?

    I am thinking in particular of peer tutoring. To do this properly requires, surely, a lot of practical expertise and sensitivity, and a lot of confidence, and the courage to engage in trial and error? The development and nurturing of such qualities cost much more than peanuts?! I’d love to read your reflections on this.

    Also, I wonder how important it may be, in the context of the pupil premium, for teachers to think and talk together deeply about the nature, causes and consequences of poverty, and the nature of justice. This too takes time and therefore money?

    • And thank you for reading and commenting so fully. I think many of the changes that improve teaching can be done for very little cost – and are much more about the attitude and mentality of the individual teacher, coupled with the culture of the school, than they are about hard cash. For ‘peanuts’, perhaps read ‘relatively low in cost’, particularly compared to the more expensive innovations which schools have seen in recent years (whiteboards, for example).

      Good CPD does cost (I note you are a provider!) and is not as prevalent as it should be, but schools should be budgeting for this and allocating time – I’m not sure it needs that much more. Take peer tutoring – it needs no additional resources, no new books or technology, sufficient self-motivation to find out how it works and a willingness to give it a go. How we develop this in teachers is, of course, complex – but I am not sure more money is the starting point; this seems to me to be more about effective professional relationships within a school, which allow for experimentation, challenge, collaborative working etc.

  2. Great blog posting and thanks for drawing attention to the Sutton Trust advice. I remember hearing a keynote by Nick Gibb (Schools Minister), about a month into his tenure. He extolled the learning of facts (photosynthesis, Miss Havisham that kind of stuff) and urged schools to do this teaching of knowledge and facts in favour of dabbling with ‘ill defined learning skills’. So precisely the strategies of meta cognition being extolled here are ones which Gibb thinks should be chased out of schools. Either the Sutton Trust are right, or Nick Gibb is right; I know who my money is on.

    • Thanks for your comment – I remember the Gibb speech too. It was early on in his tenure and, thankfully, he has seemed to have employed someone who can remove the obvious nonsense from his speeches – it’s still there, you just have to look a little harder…

  3. Possibly I am a bone-headed traditionalist, although I don’t think so. I quite like school uniforms, but mainly because they make it easier for me to get the children up, dressed and out in the mornings than because of any effect on achievement. I agree with much of what the Sutton Trust says and, like your other commenters, would back them in a scrap against DfE any day of the week. But…

    My hackles rose at the line “Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’”. What about if you’re interested in benefiting children according to their academic ability rather than their parental income? The implication, that children from low income families are not of high ability and need help , is incredibly patronising. It also means that children with greater abilities aren’t having their needs met by lessons which they find too easy, (I speak from my own grim experience as a pupil and that of my daughter, who is pretty much teaching herself English lit having given up on the pace of classes at school). I think peer tutoring would be great, I’m just slightly concerned that in some classes it means using bright kids as teachers without giving them much (academically) in return.

    • In terms of the grouping by ability, you’ve identified a real conundrum for schools who are expected to use the Pupil Premium to accelerate the progress of certain children based on parental income (who are more likely to be underperforming than their wealthier counterparts) and be able to provide evidence of how £x has delivered results for these specific children, yet are also – quite rightly – expected to provide for those who are doing well. When it comes to grouping by ability there are tensions between these two aims and, given the high-stakes politics invested in the success of the Premium, schools look like they could be damned whatever they do.

      Take your point too on peer tutoring – done badly it’s ineffective, but when done well there is bags of evidence to show it benefits both tutor and tutee (as the tutor has to do be engaged in the activity and ‘thinking’). It is one of a range of things that can work, but clearly not a panacea – like all interventions I guess the critical thing is for teachers to know and understand what constitutes effective practice and to decide for themselves whether it is appropriate for their class and pupils.

  4. betterevidence

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to this report. You may be interested in other initiatives in the UK to encourage using evidence when we are trying to decide what happens in schools. In particular The Coalition for Evidence-based Education,, an alliance of researchers, policy makers and practitioners who are interested in improving the way research evidence is used, and exchanged, across the sector. I’m sure you’d have an informed, and informative, contribution to make.

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