Does Pupil Premium actually help transform life chances of our most vulnerable pupils or does it just create a ‘frenzy’ of incoherent school intervention?

For my first blog, I thought I’d share with you my views (light hearted and serious) on ‘Pupil Premium’; often viewed erroneously by some school leaders as some sort of ‘magic money’ store that if spent carefully will raise standards in our schools for disadvantaged children.

I have been a Headteacher for 6 years and a teacher for 26 and throughout my career, I have seen many initiatives and strategies implemented in diverse school settings to raise attainment.  Let me be frank. Pupil premium additional resources are welcomed. Resources are finite. Resources have been cut and do have an impact on standards. However, resources are not always used effectively by school leaders, governors or MAT trustees.

But does the expenditure of this money have impact on learning for those children that need it most?  Does it help transform life chances which I view as a central pillar to education?  Or does to create what I would term a ‘frenzy’ of interventions that need to be documented, evidenced for accountability, reported on school website and so forth to satisfy key stakeholders and by doing so wasting leadership time to the detriment of the pupils?

Now I’m not being flippant here, but my commentary is based on my view as a former school leader.  I like to think of myself as a pragmatic leader. I don’t have all the answers to improve standards in schools but do have sensible ideas. This is a blog reflecting thoughts so don’t shoot me down if you think my analysis is a bit shallow. it’s a summary of my main thoughts which might be useful if shared.  From my reading of research, there is scant convincing evidence that pupil premium monies are lifting identified PP children out of ‘poverty of aspiration’ never mind improving their educational outcomes in a sustained way. This sounds bleak. There are some schools doing an excellent job with pupil premium, but I believe they are in the minority.

Some schools talk of PP as a sub-category of a cohort –  schools are pretty good at labelling the pupil premium kids, indeed some seat them in classrooms by pupil premium which I find not only distasteful but worryingly non-inclusive. Some even put PP stickers on their exercise books which I find demeaning.  School are pretty good ‘shoveling in pupil premium kids’ data into sophisticated tracking software and producing nice graphs that show they are still performing badly to non-PP children. These simplistic and crude analyses mask the complex socio-economic determinants that factor in many PP children’s lives.  Schools can produce ‘nice’ reports on expenditure for their website. (Though I do wonder if much of what is written is more fiction than reality) when compared to their outcomes for these children.   Schools can identify children, label them, process them through the data crunching machine and report on expenditure.

But where it gets interesting for me; is what do schools do to help these children with their learning with this funding?

This is where I believe we get into the ‘frenzy intervention’ paradigm of school improvement. Yes, a new paradigm of learning where school leaders request from teacher’s unrealistic actions to ‘reduce the gap’, ‘mind the gap’ or ‘close the gap’ depending on your audience.  So, to illustrate my ‘frenzy’ intervention paradigm, let me tell you what some schools are doing to our PP children and families to ensure their pupil premium monies are well used

  • Extra classes at breakfast, lunch time and after school (Children may get the chance to eat at some time)
  • Easter catch up, Christmas catch up, half term catches up, Saturday catch up, Sunday school, summer camp (sounds fun but its catch up= more work sheets)
  • Extra homework for catch up because every child who is PP deserves more homework
  • Meet the PP coordinator (Cheap TLR or added to job description of an already exhausted middle/senior leader) to be told your still not meeting those ‘aspirational,’ or is it ‘stretch’ or minimum expected grade target – who knows but the data crunching Progress 8 machine knows so it must be right!
  • Arrange the friendly meeting with the Headteacher with the nice spreadsheet and start a nice chat about – would you like to go to a local school which is more nurturing? We can help you get better grades that way……. win-win for all……
  • More worksheets because they are cheap
  • Oh…. maybe a school trip thrown in to enrich your mind as your parents don’t take you on trips
  • Need to do a few more baselining and get those flight trackers moving in the right direction…. watch how you compare to the rich, bright kid next door……
  • Textbooks – yes PP money buys textbooks for PP children
  • Revision guides – yes, it’s important to have 15 revision guides level 1-3 and how to be successful in life by getting a level 4 in GCSE (Standard prize/oops… pass)
  • Oh yes, the PP parent’s information evening where its reinforced its your parents fault you’re in PP category
  • PP coaching (whatever that might be if the coach turns up)
  • More interventions because more medicine makes your better
  • 3 mock examinations in year 11 because we think it’s important that you sit at a desk for hours on end rather than learn.
  • Compulsory joining of the PP school club (Yes, they do exist with membership cards and an Argos voucher thrown in leading up to premium membership (Good attendance usually) where you get an Apple voucher)
  • And more…….

Not that I am cynical, but these are all PP interventions I have seen in action across different school. How many really address core learning needs?

Now for the serious bit……

You see, to me, this frenzy of PP interventions is not effective. It breeds a culture that PP students must be different from other children. It creates a ‘values set’ that can stigmatize those children. It creates a culture of pupil and teacher burn out. It creates a culture that is data driven and not pupil centered. It impacts mental health. Its destructive. It’s a frenzy that provides evidence and false reassurance to leaders that we are spending this money well.

Now, I may have come across a little sarcastic and flippant, but I do honestly despair that schools focus on frenzy intervention at the expense of high quality ‘first’ teaching where every child matters. Yes ‘Every child matters.’ Heard that before?  Some school leaders should be ashamed of themselves. Their quest to improve standards through an intervention approach which damages teachers, support staff and children is futile and at best amateurish.   Schools need to stop the intervention frenzy and start using financial resources more directed to improving teaching and learning.  Often the children who are categorized as PP are the ones who are most ill-equipped to deal with the frenzy and fall by the side.

So, headteachers, a major plea from me and a few questions/issues to consider when thinking about PP children

  • Think about the child as a human being not a piece of data?
  • Stay away from this nasty ‘frenzy interventions’ paradigm approach and seek to get teaching good day in, day out for every child.
  • Focus on the child
  • Focus on your school culture

Most of all don’t off roll children that are struggling. Our moral purpose in education is to support all children no matter their starting point.  And finally, consider as teachers leave in their droves from the profession, is asking them to carry out all this intervention, an effective use of an increasingly challenged, undervalued and tired work force?

Colin Cattanach

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