The calls for help began the day after Dr John Dunford was appointed National Pupil Premium Champion in July. Although he scheduled to begin his role at the beginning of this month, it seems some schools and headteachers could not wait that long.
“I replied immediately giving them links to documents and information they would find useful,” Dr Dunford said. “There is evidence out there that schools clearly don’t know about but would find extremely useful. They were delighted and so was I at being able to help them.”
The schools’ interest was perhaps not surprising given that Ofsted will, in future, pay greater attention to how schools spend their Pupil Premium money, and those doing outstanding work in closing the achievement gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers will be expected to work closely with those struggling in this area – moves announced by David Laws, the schools minister, at the same time as Dr Dunford’s appointment.
“I did not have to apply for the post but was asked to do it by David Laws, after the idea for a National Pupil Premium Champion was suggested to him by a headteacher at a conference,” Dr Dunford explained.
“What I have been asked to do is to support effective ways of spending the Pupil Premium to raise attainment of those children who are eligible. This will be through working with schools, speaking at conferences to school leaders and teachers, and relaying their messages and concerns back to the Department for Education. It is a two-way role.”
The need for such a national role could not be greater, Dr Dunford believes.
“The gap in attainment in the country between disadvantaged children and the rest is greater than in most other countries, and while there may be many reasons for this, it is true to say that schools do not find it easy to put in place measures that quickly close this gap.
“These shortfalls are caused not only by educational factors but also the socio-economic and often domestic circumstances in which children and their families find themselves living. Some schools are doing great work in this area but many continue to find it hard to close the gap.”
As yet unpublished figures suggest that both at primary and secondary level, London fares best in closing the achievement gap. All but one of the top 20 local authorities for the achievement of secondary pupils eligible for Pupil Premium are in London – the other is Birmingham.
In Westminster, for example, 65 per cent of Pupil Premium-eligible students achieve five or more A* to C grades, compared with just 25 per cent in West Berkshire, the Isle of Wight and Barnsley.
At key stage 2, 18 out of 20 authorities where the gap is smallest in achievement at Level 4 are in London, together with St Helens and Halton. In the capital, performance varies from 81 to 74 per cent of Pupil Premium-eligible pupils achieving Level 4. In Suffolk and West Berkshire, two of the worst-performing authorities, it is just 57 per cent.
“There is strong evidence out there about what works in closing the achievement gap – perhaps more evidence than in any other area education,” Dr Dunford said. “This comes partly from work carried out by the Sutton Trust and the Educational Endowment Foundation to produce a toolkit of strategies that have been proven to work.
“It is clear from this, for example, that high-quality student feedback and peer-tutoring add six to eight months’ progress in terms of pupil performance.
“However, one of the problems is that schools, like government ministers, often don’t refer to research to influence policy and practice. Far too many changes are made without the best use of evidence, so one of my jobs will be to emphasise what works and to get those messages across.”
Dr Dunford will also be referring schools to Ofsted reports, notably the most recent chief inspector’s report, and two reports on the use of the Pupil Premium, published in September 2012 and February 2013.
“The executive summary of the February 2013 Ofsted report provides a list of successful approaches to using the Pupil Premium. For example, the need to ensure it is spent on the appropriate target group and that there are high expectations of pupils.
“The least successful approaches include a lack of clarity about spending and not putting Pupil Premium spending as a central part of the school development plan, and poor monitoring of pupil progress.”
Another Ofsted publication Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools: Excelling against the odds, published in 2009 and before the Pupil Premium, contains case studies of schools that have succeeding despite challenges. “They contain a wealth of information about what they schools have done and how they succeed in closing the gap. You cannot do this without raising the attainment of all pupils.
“More recently, Ofsted published its report on Unseen Children, in June, looking at patterns of disadvantage and educational success, and considering what policies work best.
“There is no excuse for a school not to use this kind of evidence when deciding how to close the gap and yet I still come across schools that do not know this evidence exists. This is the main reason why this role is needed – because there are still schools that have never heard of the Sutton Trust toolkit or used it.”
Dr Dunford’s role will take up 15 to 30 days a year and he does not anticipate being able to engage very deeply with individual schools.
“The main part of the job will be speaking to conferences and communicating effectively to the maximum number of people. I have already received 15 invitations to speak and I welcome more, particularly from those areas where the gap is the largest.
“The government is attaching great weight to the Pupil Premium for which funding has risen steadily in the past three year. This year schools will receive £900 for each eligible pupil rising to £1,300 in 2014/15, and costing the tax-payer £2.5 billion.
“The Pupil Premium is something Nick Clegg has taken a great deal of personal interest in and clearly ministers are not going to allocate such large amounts of money without wanting to see major improvement.
“Long before I took on this role I told a conference of school leaders that it was entirely proper that this government would hold schools to account for the impact of that sum of money.”
Schools can use the money as they will, it will be the impact they make for which they will be held accountable. Where this is found to be too low, Ofsted can recommend schools to link up with others where Pupil Premium is working well on closing the gap.
“I see my role as National Pupil Premium Champion as independent, and as standing between the government and schools.
“With everyone working together I am confident we can make a difference and use this money to close the gap in life chances between disadvantaged children and the rest.”
Further information CAPTION: Respected: Dr John Dunford is the new Pupil Premium Champion
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.