Three changes that could finally close the Attainment Gap

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It is fantastic to see a real momentum building up around the Pupil Premium, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw. The policy is one of three changes in our approach to disadvantaged pupils that could finally make a dent in the Attainment Gap.

“The gap in attainment in (this) country between disadvantaged children and the rest is greater than in most other countries ... 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.”

Dr John Dunford, the National Pupil Premium Champion, speaking to SecEd earlier this month (The Premium Champion, SecEd 357, September 12, 2013).

As education professionals, we find ourselves in incredibly challenging times. The recession has hit our nation hard and government cuts have hit schools, families and children even harder. The Children’s Society says that economic policy and cuts to public services will push 600,000 more children into poverty by 2015.

The Pupil Premium is perhaps the one shining beacon to come out of the last three years of government education policy. It has helped signal a national focus on the one fact that has persisted throughout the history of education: Poor children achieve and attain at lower levels than their more affluent peers.

This fact is not the fault of schools or down to the low aspirations of teachers, as some would have us believe. There are many reasons why families find themselves trapped in poverty and why poorer students struggle in schools – some of these are deeply entrenched in our nation’s history and class system, others are related to the changing nature of modern society.

I was fortunate enough to chair a conference this week on the Pupil Premium and hear some inspirational presentations from schools doing innovative things with their funding. 

I believe there is now a real momentum surrounding the Pupil Premium and the attainment gap. However, I also believe that the Pupil Premium is just one of three changes that could (will?) truly allow schools to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children.

The second is evidence. The last two to three years has seen a notable and real discussion about the use of evidence in education. Teachers have always been good at working together, trialling pedagogies and ideas, and sharing what works, but this new focus is uniting teachers, researchers and others who have a mutual goal of spreading evidence-based best practice in the same way the medical profession operates. It is not just classroom-focused, it is whole-school focused and system-wide.

And this focus on evidence has brought the Pupil Premium into its own. I’m not just talking about the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit, brilliant though it is, but the many other studies and research projects on a national and local scale, or the charities and social enterprises that are springing up dedicated to sharing best practice, or the numerous case studies that one can now find, not least within the pages of SecEd.

It’s not to say that what works in one school will necessarily work in another, but learning about the implementation of strategies and how we might interpret the evidence to suit our own contexts is crucial. As is learning lessons about what doesn’t work – I have come to find that some of the best CPD is learning about abject failure.

That leaves the third piece of the puzzle – schools have now, finally, been given permission to focus on this agenda.

This issue has always been important to teachers, but government accountability measures have never allowed schools to dedicate the resources required. But now it’s clear: the Department for Education is prioritising it in its planned new league tables, Ofsted has said that outstanding won’t be possible without good Pupil Premium progress, and schools not doing enough will face a “review” process – this is, finally, the new priority in education.

The problems of poverty and its effects are not for schools to tackle alone, but schools are on the frontline and the Premium is your best available weapon. The money is there. The evidence is there. And the permission to innovate is there. As such, I hope that the momentum now building around the Premium will finally make a real dent in the attainment gap that blights our nation.


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