Pupil Premium: An intervention epidemic?

Written by: Phil Naylor | Published:
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Is a lack of diagnosis leading to guess work in a world of solutions looking for problems? Phil Naylor urges schools to ensure that the evidence backs up their interventions

Physician Martin Fischer (1879-1962) said that “diagnosis is not the end, but the beginning of practice”.

In the term of school improvement plans and target-setting, it is timely to look at how school leaders identify and select priorities for their schools.

Too often the approach to this “appears to resemble a group of doctors trying to treat a patient’s condition without an accurate thermometer or access to the latest medical research” (AEE, 2017).

This is hardly surprising, particularly for schools and leadership teams in challenging circumstances where the pressure to deliver quick remedies and sticking plaster treatments are prescient.

Beliefs and illusions

So how do leaders set about diagnosis in these circumstances? Quite often, due to the national or regional landscape, the agreed narrative is the starting point – the targets need to be around engaging White British boys, stretching high-attaining students or narrowing the Pupil Premium gap. A pressurised leadership team in an Ofsted category looking to move quickly naturally grabs hold of ideological solutions to these nationally recognised problems.

They look to the school down the road that marks the books of Pupil Premium students first; the school the deputy came from which takes their White British boys bowling; or the academy chain’s flagship school in a leafy suburb which has introduced Saturday mastery classes for high-attainers.

This lack of diagnosis leads to guess work, solutions looking for problems, and leaves the school with an initiative and intervention overload. This approach can drain our teachers, confuse our parents and distract our students.

Correlation and causation

William Edwards Deming (1900-1993), an American engineer, statistician and professor, said that “without data, you are just another person with an opinion”.

Leadership teams using data from examinations and assessments is clearly better than blindly following the nationally agreed narrative; measuring the symptoms of the condition allows for more accurate diagnosis.

Data is important, but leaders must be careful not to attribute correlation with causation and quite often, to extend our medical analogy, by the time the symptoms appear, it may be too late to treat the cause: the primary school due an inspection with low phonics scores at the end of year 1 for its Pupil Premium students launches into a one-to-one reading programme. Its data shows a 33 per cent improvement so it scales up for the following year – but the 33 per cent was down to one pupil who had missed five sessions due to dentist treatments.

The data must be part of a root and branch audit of the school’s current practice. An example would be the Teacher Development Trust’s audit process for CPD, which looks at culture, focus, needs analysis and, crucially, research, innovation and evidence, carefully building CPD programmes to support this need.

This diagnosis will identify themes for your school in your context. For example, many schools in the government’s Opportunity Areas have identified that the literacy levels of students are the main conditions causing the symptoms of low attainment, poor engagement and a widening of the Pupil Premium gap.

The data may show that reading scores are low but a full audit including all stakeholders may reveal that decoding is good but comprehension is poor, thereby allowing schools to define a very tight area of focus.

A positive by-product of this approach is the stripping away of many interventions that do not directly contribute to this area of focus (is there any benefit to a trip to a water park at the weekend for the Pupil Premium students who struggle to read?).

This can save money, time and allow teachers and students to focus on evidence-based “best bets” for these tight areas of focus. These best bets must be, in my opinion, taken from the comprehensive sets of guidance reports and toolkit suggestions from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).


Thomas Edison said that “vision without implementation is hallucination”.

Having specified a tight area of focus, it is important to make changes but these need to be considered, incremental and implemented fully.

The patient recovering from a heart attack needs more exercise, a healthier diet and regular check-ups. She also needs to know that the treatments prescribed are most likely to work for her in her situation. The need for exercise is clear but attempting to run the London marathon the same year would be a bridge too far.

Yet how many times do we see schools identify an issue (hopefully consult some research and look for evidence-based solutions) and throw the proverbial kitchen sink of interventions at the problem – and then measure the outcomes only in the summer.

We need to take time to potentially change the curriculum, build CPD programmes and factor in full implementation with intelligent adaptation thrown in. The placebo pill of interventions might make things feel better but ultimately the issue will return if we do not go about this properly.

So, if your school is in the process of writing your school improvement plan, consider if you will these suggestions:

  • Carry out a full audit – use data, both quantitative from assessments and exams and qualitative from staff/stakeholder voices. Is the problem really the problem? Do you have solutions ready for the problems? Are you paying too much attention to the agreed narrative? How is your confirmation bias?
  • Peel off the sticking plasters – help reduce unnecessary workload for staff and stop distracting students with interventions that do not address the underlying issues.
  • Look for best bets – access evidence and research-based solutions to your schools’ issues that are most likely to work in your context. Take time in this “exploring phase”. Prepare for implementation from the outset.

  • Phil Naylor is assistant director at the Blackpool Research School and an expert advisor with the Teacher Development Trust. Find his podcast at https://anchor.fm/naylorsnattering

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