Pupil Premium: How do you talk about money?

Written by: Liz Hebb | Published:
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We are not trained or prepared for how we should speak to Pupil Premium students about this label, what it means, and about money in general – and this can be a real minefield for teachers and school staff. Liz Hebb explains


"Here’s your free text and revision guide!"

We could be the purveyors of free evening newspapers, calling out as we ceremoniously lower these books on to the selected children’s tables, smiling benevolently.

Or perhaps it’s a rather awkward “this is yours”, as we deliver it, like we are passing over state secrets.

It is a minefield trying to get it right when supporting a child identified as Pupil Premium in our lessons. It is even worse trying to talk to them about it.

Money: it is an uncomfortable truth but on a relatively good wage a teacher is hardly in the authentic position of empathising with a child whose parents cannot afford a copy of Romeo and Juliet. And even if the teacher was once themselves “Pupil Premium”, they are no longer and any empathy can just come across as pity. When students see YouTubers and footballers earning millions, it is hard to reconcile that with trying to understand their own family’s financial position.

With zero training on how to talk to students about their Pupil Premium label, often the teacher is blindsided by the questions: “Why do they get a free book?” “What does Pupil Premium mean?”

And more often than not, no-one has articulated to the child exactly what it does mean. So, it becomes an embarrassment on both sides.


Conscious/unconscious attitudes

Should we define Pupil Premium students under the umbrella of diversity? But how can we celebrate a group for whom their representative role models are those who found success and so no longer would regard themselves as Pupil Premium?

Unlike Black students, for example, whose identity will always involve to some degree their ethnicity, a Pupil Premium student may not always be so. In fact, aspiration for a Pupil Premium student often means to cast off your background and become successful in spite of it.

We really need to separate our thinking around attainment and Pupil Premium. For example, going to university is simply not a risk for the middle or upper classes. But for a Pupil Premium student, there is no safety net of parents’ financial support – these children need to become financially secure as soon as possible.

And how do we celebrate Pupil Premium identity in school when at the same time we are focusing the funding on being able to rid students of this label for their next generation?

Take Jack (all student names in this article have been changed), a year 11 student. The school is using all of its intervention funding to ensure that Jack achieves good enough grades to access a course at post-16 to allow him into a career that means his children will not need Pupil Premium funding. Essentially, the school’s end-goal is to erase any trace of the Pupil Premium status in the next generation. How can we sincerely build any sense of pride in our Pupil Premium students when that is our target?

Quite often, famous Pupil Premium people are those who are deemed successful, who have “made something of themselves”.

Giving a child these role models is also telling them that they need to aspire to get out of their financial situation – that this situation by definition is something to be ashamed of. And then we are back to square one.


Talking to a Pupil Premium child?

It is crucial that we, as staff, are ready and confident in how we discuss what it is to be a Pupil Premium child with our students.

As a form tutor or subject teacher, it is important that we have the language to hand for any off-the-cuff or organised meetings with a student.

For this, it is imperative that any Pupil Premium leader has the following information available for staff:

  • Why the child is identified as being Pupil Premium. For example if a child is from a one-parent family and it has been their parent’s earnings that has been the deciding factor this is a significantly different discussion compared to a child whose parents were living on one wage four years ago after a redundancy but who are now both once again in work.
  • Has the child been made aware of what they are entitled to in terms of financial support from the school?
  • How does the child feel about being identified as Pupil Premium? Is this something they feel comfortable with or should the teacher be more sensitive in their approach. Year 9 student Craig was proud of his single mum bringing him up whereas Leila in year 11 did not like anything that drew attention, even inadvertently, to her looked after status. Knowing this before any conversation informed my approach when talking to the student about what they were entitled to in my subject.


Financial understanding

A lot of children and young adults have very little concept of money. When we complete a PSHE lesson on financial issues it becomes apparent just how naïve children are. They assume they will have a job where they will earn more than a footballer in a week, their house will have more bathrooms than sense and they will have no financial concerns at all.

This isn’t the norm for the majority of British school children, let alone Pupil Premium children, which is why our financial and career teaching needs to be significantly robust.

Once, during a career talk, the visiting software developer was listing all the perks a techie could hope to achieve, including healthcare, moving expenses, app bonuses and I could see my students’ eyes glaze over. They had zero idea what a good wage really was and these perks meant little to them when they had no concept of what they even needed them for. The developer seemed a little taken aback when there were no gasps at his long list.

But really, why would we be surprised – the average age that a young person becomes financially independent and leaves their parental home in the UK is 25-years-old (Eurostat, 2019). Why would an 11-year-old have any concept? I asked the students what they believed was their ideal starting wage and their responses ranged from £40,000 to £100,000, with one student assuming that most adults earned over £50,000. It was quite evident they were spouting numbers with no tangible understanding of what they meant.

Allow children to understand how much pressure the average parent is under money-wise. Show them the impact that ethnicity or disability has on job prospects as well as mental health, being a single parent, sudden job closures, zero-hour contracts or unexpected illness.


Pride

It is important for a child’s pride to understand that being a Pupil Premium student does not mean that their parents have failed, and that being Pupil Premium does not mean you are in abject poverty – and that even if you were, this also does not mean failure.

Rather than relying on the financially successful representatives for our young people, we need to, as a school, provide examples of those who have gone into their chosen field but are not necessarily earning a huge wage. They are happy and have achieved well, but money has not been the value that they have placed upon themselves.

Show the students that as a writer you will possibly be earning less than £20,000 a year – David Walliams is not the norm. As a footballer, you might not make it into the Premier League and may be playing football alongside another career in order to pay your rent. And the important thing is that it is okay, that these professionals are not disappointed or failures.

Exposing students to the notion that having a high wage packet does not equate to job satisfaction will not only allow them to view their parents’ employment or current situation with more respect, but they will hopefully have less fear of “failure”, too.


Positive curriculum representation

English teachers – are we the worst? Let’s read A Christmas Carol where the poor working class will only survive if men like

Scrooge give away a smidgen of their wealth. Where we instruct our students to pity Eva Smith from An Inspector Calls – the working-class girl who is abused by the wealthy.

Where are our working class heroes? Where are the characters that give a child a positive representation? Even in Shakespeare the working class are the foolish, the silent or the abused.

Consider your curriculum – how does it present poverty and the poor? Are you slipping into habits of showing extremes, from slum life to unbelievable wealth? How are we presenting the working class to our students within our subjects?

Look at Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford – he managed to become a successful footballer in spite of the lack of reading he was exposed to. Wow, isn’t it amazing how John Boyega got to acting school even though he grew up on a council estate. This is well-meaning aspiration-building but it unfortunately just smacks of unconscious (or in some cases conscious) prejudice.

At the time of writing this article, new books that had been published for our teenagers consist of a magical princess, teens in a reality television show, a trans Black youngster, a character being the reluctant star of a YouTube channel, a Hunger Games prequel, and a promotion of eco-friendly behaviours.

All excellent books I have no doubt, but none of them present poverty or social deprivation in a way that a child can identify with in a positive manner. The only one that refers to poverty is the Hunger Games prequel where children are encouraged to fight to the death for financial security.

It is crucial that when most children’s literature shows heroes going from rags to riches, we need to be more diverse in our choices within the curriculum.

It seems as if Sharna Jackson – who writes for the nine to 13 age group – presents our only Pupil Premium examples with her High Rise Mystery books, where the two heroines live in a tower block in the middle of London. More like this please rather than the poor Cratchits desperate for a hand-out to save their child’s life.

  • Liz Hebb is a secondary English teacher from the Midlands who is responsible for stretch and challenge in her school.


Further information & resources


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