Pupil Premium: Raising university aspirations

Written by: Holly Henderson | Published:
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Raising the university aspirations of high potential Pupil Premium students is a specific challenge for some schools. Holly Henderson discusses her approach to raising students’ goals and aspirations

Working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds can be challenging – particularly when you are encouraging them to pursue high aspirations and goals. Our Pupil Premium students make up 41.9 per cent of our cohort and many of these also fall into the category of “high attainers”.

Research, such as that by Nabil Khattab (2015), suggests that students with low expectations of themselves, and low aspirations, will achieve less in their educational lives. This is exactly what we want to avoid happening to our learners.

In an environment where they may never have seen anyone go on to university or certain careers, we needed to create an atmosphere of encouragement and lots of opportunities for success. In my role, I was tasked with developing higher aspirations and opportunities for our “high potential” learners.

High potential learners are students who are, academically, categorised as having the potential to achieve the highest grades. These students, although gifted in different ways, often lack confidence. This could be due to them having few goals and no drive, an inherent lack of confidence due to high expectations or very little resilience to failure.

These issues all have an impact on the attainment of high potential students, and of Pupil Premium students within that data group particularly.

As a school, we changed the term “gifted and talented” to “high potential” – a semantic shift. Using “potential” was instrumental in signposting that learners had the prospect of success, regardless of whether they are yet attaining high grades. It also helped to establish an ethos of high expectations of their futures, for them as well as for the other people in their lives.

As part of this “rebranding”, we knew the current gifted and talented programme had to be reformed and expanded. This would be done in several ways:

  1. By giving students ample opportunity to experience as many extra-curricular activities as possible.
  2. By giving them experiences they may not get in any other mainstream school.
  3. By offering them ways in which to mould their future goals and aspirations.
  4. By expanding the gifted and talented cohort to include learners who have the potential to attain high grades.

These four principles would drive our main vision: our high-potential Pupil Premium students deserve the very same opportunities as our most able. In order to make this happen, we would have to engage the students with the opportunities, make sure they were funded where possible and engage parents with our efforts.

As Khattab (2015) suggests, parental encouragement can have a profound impact on student progress and this, coupled with our school programme, should develop the aspirations of Pupil Premium students.

Parent information

Once we had clarified the vision and goals of the high potential initiative, we then had to formulate an action plan and involve all stakeholders. This first began with parent information evenings for high potential learners. We organised an exciting set of speakers, including subject leads who could talk about the elusive grade 9, speeches recorded by Matthew Syed and informative sessions by university outreach officers.

The goal was to provide opportunities for parents and students to understand what high potential means, and gain a clearer understanding of the university experience in order to encourage high aspirations. The events were well attended by parents and the university workshops garnered the most positive feedback.

Parents had lots of questions as well as concerns about us encouraging their children to attend university. We had one huge barrier to overcome in particular – so many students from areas of deprivation believe that university will be too expensive and will get their parents into debt. These fixed ideas put a cap on aspirations and cultivate an ethos of “settling” for less than what they had the potential to achieve.

At the end of the presentations, time was given to allow parents to ask questions so we could alleviate their concerns. As expected, the first question was about fees.

Parents expected the answer to be that the debt was crippling and that parents would be liable if their child couldn’t pay. When their fears were laid to rest, attendees were much more receptive and lots of questions were asked about courses and where they could go.

This was particularly evident at the visit from the Oxford University outreach officer. Parents were convinced it was much too expensive for students to go to Oxford or Cambridge. When the officer explained how it may actually be cheaper, their moods and attitudes changed completely. It was exciting to see how quickly barriers could be broken down. These evenings have continued for parents. We are also considering other forms of engagement with parents, including career events and award ceremonies.


After informing parents about their child’s abilities and potential, we then set about the task of expanding our enrichment offering. The most important factor for me was that, wherever possible, these opportunities should be free. This would ensure that all learners could take advantage as opposed to just those who could just afford to go.

Therefore, we looked at funding and sought out new ways to fund our enrichment programmes. The funding from Pupil Premium is often utilised to create opportunities for high potential students to make rapid progress and access these opportunities, as well as many others for the whole Pupil Premium cohort. Further funding from Aimhigher West Midlands, which we managed to win a bid for this year, is also utilised for advancing our extra-curricular provision for Pupil Premium students.

The programmes that incur a cost are allocated to the students who require the most help to achieve their aspirational targets. However, it might surprise you to hear that there are a lot of interventions and enrichment opportunities that are free. Lots of universities will offer programmes for young people that are completely free and these were some of our most successful enrichment activities.

Our students are now exposed to a wide range of activities and lots of different university experiences. This is vital to their progress. They need to see a range of possibilities, not just those in their local area.

Some enrichment clubs do cost the school money, yet they are so valuable that we feel they are worth it. The Brilliant Club is one such example as it has been highly influential to the students involved. It is an example of one way we have used our Aimhigher and “high potential” funding.

The aim of the club is to give socially disadvantaged high potential learners the experience of university-style teaching and an opportunity to write a university essay. The tutor comes into school five times and teaches the students in small groups. They then produce the essay. It is a topic they have never experienced in school and something they are excited about learning.

The skills they have learned are things we are hoping we can ask them to pass on to other students in the school. Their confidence has grown and this has given them a real insight into what their university life could be like.

Many other trips and interventions have been put in place that offer motivational rewards for excellence in order to further develop their resilience and growth mindset. These experiences will be essential to them as they move forward into key stage 4, as well as life after secondary education.


Doing this project with our most able, and yet most vulnerable students, has taught me many things. First, I have learnt the value of parental engagement and how powerful a tool this can be. Second, I have seen the importance of addressing the question of funding, and now we have more students getting involved in trips and clubs than ever before. Third, I have also seen the benefit of our students having high aspirations and clear goals.

We still need to do a lot more work on this, but I do feel that our students are more motivated, are secure in their own abilities and keen to pursue new challenges. We are currently in the process of creating a sharing board for students, where they can express how they have shown grit with a piece of work to develop their resilience in the face of challenge.

Finally, we would also like to expand our careers programme to expose our students to a broad range of careers. This is starting in July this year with a careers fair when once again we will invite the parents.

Creating a culture of aspirational thinking is never going to be easy in a disadvantaged area, yet the high potential programme has provided a vehicle to do so. It has given high potential students choices and options that they may never have considered before, and this will hopefully be an instigator for raising the progress, and overall attainment, of this core group of students.

  • Holly Henderson is the high potential coordinator and a teacher of English at Bristnall Hall Academy in the West Midlands. She is a current participant on the 2017 Teaching Leaders programme, run by Ambition School Leadership.

Further information

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk

Pupil Premium Special Edition

This article was published as part of SecEd’s Pupil Premium Special Edition. The edition, published on March 22, 2018, offers a range of specialist best practice advice for Pupil Premium work in schools, including classroom and whole-school interventions, advice for school leaders and more. The entire edition is available to download as a free pdf document on our website supplements page: www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements


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