Pupil Premium: Levelling the playing field with high expectations

Written by: Amy Benziane | Published:
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How can we ensure that our disadvantaged students make good progress and achieve success? Amy Benziane discusses approaches centred on high expectations and aspiration

Since the start of my teaching career I have been striving for a society where students’ outcomes are never determined by their background. Whether as a classroom teacher or middle leader, I have always endeavoured to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Giving all children access to a brilliant education and enabling education to genuinely change lives: that’s the goal.

The schools I have worked at have one thing in common: a positive, aspirational ethos. We may be battling economic, social and familial factors over which we have little or no control. However, there remain some actions that can ensure we are having a real impact on our disadvantaged students.

What do we hope to achieve?

Information on students within our schools is obviously important and having the knowledge of who our most “at-risk” students are is vital if we want to close the attainment gap. However, identifying disadvantaged students and assigning a label to them is not enough – this is just step one of many.

Having real impact requires knowledge, a clear, personalised strategy and, most importantly, having high expectations for all. If your intent for these students does not include the genuine belief that they can achieve the highest standards then I believe that the battle is already lost. In a world of data drops and progress checks, some teachers need to stop and take a step back – we may need to re-evaluate whether we are guilty of just ticking boxes and going through the motions. Or are we setting ourselves the aspirational task of making a real impact and believing in our professional ability to achieve this?

Within the English department at my school, we focus on the important task of building cultural capital for disadvantaged pupils along with ensuring their technical accuracy in writing and fluency in reading.

Importantly, we teach our students that the benefits of literature and of learning itself are holistic. For example, we make reading recommendations that we think will be challenging and personally enriching – whether informally or through the Accelerated Reader program we run for all key stage 3 students or the recommended reading linked to critical theory at key stage 4. These excite our students and help us to build a positive, trusting relationship.

My belief is that great teaching, for Pupil Premium students or otherwise, does not just mean students achieving excellent academic outcomes (although that is a necessary part of it). Students should also be empowered to enjoy and understand your subject regardless of their background.

Within our team there is a common understanding that the way in which we run our interventions, both inside and outside the classroom, should reflect the passion we have for our subject, and its importance within the students’ lives.

We do not apologise for the academic rigour, we celebrate it and encourage them to do the same.

Supporting colleagues through open dialogue

Whether a teacher has been in the profession for decades or months, as a department we make sure everyone feels empowered to set and expect high expectations of student behaviour and encourage a “no excuses” culture in themselves and their learners. We support one another towards a long-term goal: access to a fair education system.

The successes we have seen, both in attitudes to learning and examinations outcomes, mainly came from a shift in teacher outlooks away from short-term interventions in year 11 to high-quality teaching throughout key stages 3 and 4.

Academic rigour and high expectations for all learners are at the centre of our shared planning and forms the basis of performance management conversations. We work to level the playing field through first wave, in-class interventions supported by key stage coordinators.

With the support of these coordinators, intervention meetings are held after key mock examination data points. Within these meetings we can discuss the progress and attainment of students and plan for how to reach those who are not making expected progress.

We plan for how to overcome barriers and share strategies that are working, as well as supporting one another to find solutions for how best to reach each individual student.

Small group interventions

Following one of our departmental intervention meetings, Grade 9 Lunchtimes were launched. We targeted students who would not usually speak up in class or who found it difficult to imagine themselves performing at the top end with weekly lunchtime sessions.

Having done our research, we understood that articulacy and verbal literacy are some of the primary barriers for disadvantaged students. So the drive in these sessions was discussion on the big ideas, the overarching themes in the texts we study in English literature, with high level vocabulary being modelled and explicitly taught.

We knew the sessions would be invaluable and we wanted to ensure students understood their worth – so we made them opt-in. From 74 Pupil Premium students in the cohort, 38 signed up.

Our aim is to attach a certain amount of prestige to these interventions – there is no name and shame, only invite and enjoy. And by the end of the year, the students were more able to articulate their newly developed ideas but they also felt confident and empowered to appropriately express their concerns and successes with adults supporting them.

Teaching to the top – lecture style

Recognising students’ strengths is important, but I would argue that the best method of supporting underachieving students is to have an expert teacher deliver additional lessons.

As a department we volunteered to run one lecture each for year 11. Some chose to co-deliver and others created the slide for the lectures. The whole of year 11 was invited and each lecture linked to English literature exam texts or a core skill in English language.

Not only we were filling a gap in students’ understanding and boosting their exam performance with high level ideas, but we were also celebrating and developing our team.

We felt confident that once students had attended one lecture they would see their value, so we pitched them as not-to-be-missed events.

They were advertised through posters around the school and through word of mouth. We found that making sure certain key players in the year group saw them as an effective, grown-up way to revise really helped to encourage food attendance.

At each lecture we greeted students with refreshments, a print out of the slides for note-taking, and an assembly hall set out with rows of chairs and the freedom to sit wherever they wanted. The hour-long lecture was pitched to the top but planned in such a way that it was accessible to everyone on different levels. At the most well-attended lecture we had 119 students listening intently until nearly 5pm and the audience included of just over 60 per cent of our Pupil Premium students.

Valuing each individual and expecting the most

When observing my colleagues, within my department and across the school, my main observation is that the way they work with the students creates an atmosphere that feels like a team; inclusivity and shared successes dominate.

Our school ethos accepts that as a teacher we are there to facilitate a shared responsibility and ownership of the learning, not simply to teach using a top-down approach. We get to know each student’s motivations, involve their family in their successes, and offer students personalised support outside of lesson time, whether through marking, homework or extra revision sessions.

Creating an encouraging environment and building relationships with our students should be the cornerstone of what we do. But this must also come with the real belief that results for historically underachieving groups are to be expected.

As Tom Sherrington wrote a while ago in his SecEd article Taking the lid off (2018): “Unless teachers have the belief that students can tackle difficult challenges, cope with a demanding load of independent study and can be expected to deliver excellent work week-in, week-out, then it probably won’t happen.”

Taking time to evaluate the motives behind current intervention practices could be the first step towards really closing the gap. If we choose to mark disadvantaged students’ books first we must also ask ourselves what the intent and impact of this is. If it is to ignite a passion for your subject, alongside increasing their confidence then how can you ensure this occurs?

I am aware that disadvantaged students joining us in year 7 are likely to be behind their privileged peers; the gap already exists so why wait for a data drop or a book marking deadline? Considering what I will do before they write in their books, how I will set high expectations, and how I will get to know them as individuals– these are my priorities.

There is no quick fix, it is not just about providing revision guides, it is about taking the time to get to know your students, understand the barriers and then working strategically to ensure no child’s background negatively impacts their life chances.

  • Amy Benziane trained with Teach First in 2010 and has worked as a part-time English teacher and tutor since 2016.

Further information & resources

Taking the lid off – stretch and challenge in the classroom, Sherrington, SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/31LPwsx


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