Pupil Premium: The persistent problem of poverty

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Covid-19 is expected to exacerbate the already stark child poverty crisis facing millions of young people in our country. Sean Harris looks at how schools might poverty-proof their work


Exiting via the gift-shop, I still recall my year 5 peers leaving my side to spend their money at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. Most of them picking up various Nordic non-essentials.

My headteacher, Mr Webster, approached me and discreetly put a few pounds in my hand before telling me to go and buy myself something. I left that day with two things.

First, a Viking ruler (the measuring kind) and, second, a sense that while I was different and could not always afford what some of my peers could, some of my teachers recognised this and would do what they could to give me access to what my friends took for granted.

My understanding that I had spent some of my childhood in poverty did not really come until I went to the University of Durham as an undergraduate. Hearing peers describe how their student loan had been spent in the student bar by the second week, observing friends with their notebook computers, and having to hitch lifts from friends to university wasn’t a problem for me.

However, it reminded me, alongside being the first in my family to walk the corridors of academia, that poverty is genuine. It is not simply about raising aspirations. Even with the required entry grades, I still had to navigate my way through cobbled streets and general academic life alongside more affluent peers.


A poverty pandemic

While poverty has always been a constant challenge in schools, it is expected that the on-going socio-economic impact of the global pandemic will exacerbate this complex problem (Adfam, 2020).

National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) research estimates that children could be up to three months “behind” in their academic studies across both primary and secondary phases, with disadvantaged pupils being most affected (Sharp et al, 2020).

The research found that 98 per cent of school leaders and teachers believed that pupils were behind in their programme of curriculum study. The situation was worse for schools serving communities of socio-economic disadvantage. Headteachers and school leaders indicated in the report that almost 30 per cent of pupils have had no access to a laptop or computer in the home environment. Poverty is not eradicated by virtual hangouts or Zoom meetings it seems.


What ever happened to the Pupil Premium?

You cannot discuss poverty without discussing the Pupil Premium. Schools were commissioned with the Pupil Premium to allocate support and intervention for pupils in disadvantaged categories, including free school meals (FSM), in order to raise pupil attainment and close the gap between them and their more affluent peers.

Of course, any attempt to offer resources to school leaders to tackle in-school poverty gets my vote of confidence and my “former FSM child who pulled himself away from poverty” badge of approval.

However, the Pupil Premium is not without its critics. Gilbert (2019) asserts that: “Despite action, policy, spending and hot air from across the political spectrum claiming to address this ‘attainment gap’, any gap closing is taking place at a shockingly slow pace.”

Indeed, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) confirmed earlier this year that the attainment gap at GCSE between disadvantaged students and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in 10 years – and this is based on 2019 data, from before the Covid-19 lockdown.

The gap stands at 18.1 months and is calculated based on pupils’ performance in their English and maths GCSEs. This compares with a gap of 19.7 months in 2011. However, this gap in 2015 also stood at 18.1 months, meaning little progress has been made in the last five years (Hutchinson, 2020).

But despite this very uncomfortable truth, the Pupil Premium can – as we all know – lever change. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2019) notes that the Pupil Premium provides an opportunity for system-leaders and headteachers in schools to prioritise the academic outcomes and achievement of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the education system.

The EEF states: “When it is most effective, the Pupil Premium will sit at the heart of a whole school effort, with all staff understanding the strategy and their role within it.”


Poverty in the school day

Despite the slow progress on closing attainment gaps, the Pupil Premium looks set to remain and this coming year schools also have their share of the £650m Covid-19 catch-up fund announced by education secretary Gavin Williamson (DfE, 2020a).

But, in the post-lockdown learning climate, how do we go about diagnosing the needs of disadvantaged students coming through the classroom doors.

Poverty also wears a face-mask. Be it self-pride, shame, or perhaps ignorance. I did not recognise I was in poverty. But, some of my teachers did. And it was this that made a difference for me.

Poverty Proofing the School Day was launched eight years ago by North East charity Children North East (SecEd, 2019). Since then, the charity has worked alongside hundreds of schools, system-leaders and children to attempt to get under the skin of poverty in schools and help school leaders better “poverty-proof” their school day.

The initiative’s director, Luke Bramhall, recently spent time with a team of researchers “temperature-checking” the poverty of individual schools through qualitative interviews with pupils, parents, school teachers and leaders.

He told me: “This is not about being critical of the good attempts of schools to cater for disadvantaged children, it is about us working forensically with school leaders and communities to really understand what it means to be a child in that school who is experiencing poverty in their personal life.”

Sometimes the responses are uncomfortable for schools. Mr Bramhall continued: “It brings to the surface for these schools what it means to experience that school day as a child living in poverty. But, it also highlights to the school community what steps can be taken to better address the needs of the children and families that need it the most.”

For example, in one school, teachers were aware that the take-up of FSM was limited and had unsuccessfully tried a number of initiatives to address this. However, through research with the Poverty Proofing team, a small number of pupils admitted that the FSM deal at lunch-times involved them getting a smaller muffin and drinks carton to that of their peers. Worse still, when these pupils went to pay with the cashless pay system – implemented with the best intentions by school support staff – they felt embarrassed to see in large letters on the catering display “Free School Meals Pupil”.

Mr Bramhall added: “It had become the norm for these pupils to opt out of lunch rather than face the personal and peer-related issues of claiming a free school meal each day.”


Poverty-proofing the school day

The research, so far, has highlighted that there are a number of actionable steps that school leaders and teachers could take over the coming months to better inform their approach to poverty-proofing the school day.

  • Non-uniform days and fancy-dress celebration days (e.g. World Book Day) might be a useful way of relaxing some of the gloom of the far from normal start to the academic year. However, these are also high-pressure days for many pupils. Consider other approaches. Schools could have teachers dress up or invite pupils to wear coloured items or socks.
  • Consider bringing together your own focus groups of disadvantaged pupils every few weeks for a working lunch. Provide food and use it as an opportunity to find out what their perception is so far this term, the issues they are facing and how the new year has started amid the strain of the “new normal”. You want their views on how the school is doing – they don’t need to know they are disadvantaged, but they do need to know that their views matter.

Some schools may have resorted to allowing the wearing of PE kits for full school days to avoid the Covid chaos of changing rooms. This is a good idea, but stick to a PE-uniform policy and insist on providing school PE kit to those that cannot afford it. Do not allow the wearing of branded materials or high-cost trainers.

Fundraising and community engagement is still important and can bring a wave of joy and optimism to what is a difficult period for schools. But avoid asking for compulsory donations and avoid asking pupils to publicly donate in class or in front of peers.

Continuing educational trips and building cultural capital is more important now than ever. Consider virtual trips to museums for the whole class and invite speakers from other organisations via video calls or socially distanced meets. This means all children have access.

Closely monitor the engagement of disadvantaged pupils with extra-curricular and homework activities. Review the take-up of these activities, the costs and the type of pupils engaging the most. What does this reveal?

Lockdown may create less awkward conversation opportunities for teachers wanting to re-engage with pupils. Instead of asking questions like “where did you go on holiday?”, turn instead to dialogue that allows for pupils to talk more openly about their experiences in lockdown: “What was most tricky about lockdown for you and the family? What types of things did you do to stop boredom?”

Many schools have opted to supply basic stationery to avoid pupils having to supply their own materials. This creates a good opportunity to ensure all pupils are equipped with the basics at the start of lessons and avoids pupils bringing in high-range items.


Poverty-proofing post Covid-19

The need to listen to and understand the experience and reality of pupils is always crucial. However, Covid-19 and waves of national and now local lockdowns have created a more pressing case for this work.

Working alongside the University of Newcastle, the Poverty Proofing team have been adapting their research design with schools in order to offer more relevant support in the current climate.

Mr Bramhall and the team have also adapted their programme of support to suit the needs of schools via virtual consultative meetings and research interviews with pupils using digital platforms. The programme involves a one-day training course for a member of the school leadership team to understand more forensically the persistent problem of poverty in schools, the impact of poverty on learning, and the ways in which Poverty-proofing can help to diagnose needs.

Researchers can run consultations with pupils, senior leaders and conduct staff briefings to include training on the impact of and issues associated with poverty in schools.


Thank you Mr Rigg

As I walked my two girls into school last week, I was greeted by Mr Rigg, their headteacher. Every day he was stood on the school gates greeting each parent, carer and pupil and asking them to feedback how the start of term had been for them.

He may have been two-metres away, but watching him scribble notes down from his various interactions with every parent reminded me that this is also about being attentive, that every child needs a voice and sometimes you will need to listen carefully and watch observantly for those pupils who really need support.


  • Sean Harris is a post-doctoral researcher at Teesside University, a former school leader, and serves as a governor of a school in Northumberland. He is currently researching ways in which schools tackle local poverty in their context. Follow him @SeanHarris_NE. To read his previous best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/2KlDQqc


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