Seven Pupil Premium challenges for secondary schools


What are the main Pupil Premium difficulties faced by secondary schools? Catherine Stevens from the Challenge the Gap initiative outlines seven key challenges to effective Pupil Premium strategies and offers some solutions and advice.

The Pupil Premium is now so embedded in schools as a key government priority, that it is easy to forget it was only introduced back in 2011. 

The programme is now worth £2.5 billion, and the 2014/15 financial year will see secondary schools receive £935 for each pupil registered as eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years – and £1,900 for each looked-after pupil.

Generally perceived as a strong government policy by the sector, the devil has been in the detail of implementation. There are many hurdles for schools to overcome in how they spend their Pupil Premium funding and how it is evidenced. It cannot disappear into a budgetary “black hole”.

The Pupil Premium and FSM developments are still proving to be political hot potatoes, but it is clear that the solutions for harnessing this funding to effectively break the link between poverty and poor outcomes for disadvantaged pupils lie within schools, and in collaborative working between schools.

Challenge Partners – a school improvement partnership – has recently released the interim results of its Challenge the Gap whole-school initiative.

On average, pupils in the Challenge the Gap target cohorts across 132 schools made five terms’ progress in three terms, while over a third (38 per cent English and 34 per cent maths) made more than two years’ progress in a year, through a focus on school-to-school learning and a collaborative approach to tackling gaps in the classroom.

The top seven

Here are the top seven Pupil Premium challenges as described by secondary school leaders involved in Challenge the Gap.

1, Allocating Pupil Premium spend can be problematic – school leaders struggle to balance funds between identified FSM students and other equally disadvantaged students who, for the sake of as little as £20 a year, may not be eligible for Pupil Premium. Honing in on making the spend explicit and linked to pupil progress is the holy grail.

2, Understanding the complexities of the different “types” of children receiving Pupil Premium is a minefield – the issues child A faces will differ to child B who is also eligible.

3, Minding the in-school gap is increasingly becoming an issue – how do you ensure that this does not widen as the impact of effective pedagogies improves the attainment of all your learners, whether they are Pupil Premium students or not?

4, Working effectively with primary colleagues so that there is a consistency and understanding around the best strategies to improve key skills – particular with numeracy and literacy.

5, Tackling the question as to whether there can even be a “one-size-fits-all” Pupil Premium approach. Partly, this is around ensuring that policy-makers understand that the FSM cohort in one school is made up of very different students from the FSM cohort in a school a mere mile down the road. How can schools ensure that their most able FSM pupils are not lost in the mix?

6, Addressing the stigma of FSM children and acknowledging the challenges of engaging parents. What should schools call their Pupil Premium children? How is that “messaged” to parents without causing disengagement or bad feeling? After all, who wants to be part of the Pupil Premium club?

7, Looking forward – one of the biggest challenges is deemed to be the demands of the new key stage 3 and 4 curriculum this September and the changes already felt on the ground in terms of early entry on disadvantaged learners.

Practical advice for schools

Challenge the Gap, backed by the Education Endowment Foundation, has focused on the holistic progress of pupils including behaviour, attendance, attitude, self-awareness, resilience and academic progress.

Schools report a dramatic impact on attitude and behaviour from children that they have struggled to engage using other approaches.

Delivered by 14 “facilitation schools” (many of them Teaching Schools) to clusters of “trios” of schools, one of the most innovative aspects of the programme is the investment in effective use of all team members from school leadership to para-professionals (non-teaching staff). Challenge the Gap is very much a whole-child, whole-school programme.

School leaders involved in the programme offer the following advice to secondary schools to help them tackle some of the Pupil Premium challenges listed above:

SLT responsibility

Nominate a member of your senior leadership team to assume responsibility for the attainment of Pupil Premium students. Ensuring the progress of Pupil Premium students and evidencing this should be a whole-school priority.

Ensure heads and the senior leadership teams prioritise Pupil Premium – the commitment of senior leadership is central to the success of any programme and uplifting the attainment of pupils from low-income families is a knottier problem than most. There is no quick fix and it cannot be solved without real commitment.


Use the research, especially the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Pupil Premium Toolkit, to identify how money can be spent cost-effectively and yet still achieve the greatest impact possible. Pupil Premium pupils need to make accelerated, not average progress, so you need to focus on high-impact pedagogies and activities.

Embracing change

Engage in discussions with colleagues to look at how the research can stimulate changing practice. Even better, work together over an extended period of time to develop and test approaches. It is what Professor David Hargreaves calls “systematic tinkering” that results in the development of effective new practice.

What works

Pool strategies and actions that have worked in the past. Challenge the Gap participants come together in workshops six times a year, which enables leaders, teachers and para-professionals (non-teaching staff) to really get to know what has worked in the other schools they work with.

Non-teaching experts

Use the insights and expertise of non-teaching staff to access the viewpoints of young people and parents and ask for their assistance in monitoring activities such as mentoring sessions. In Challenge the Gap, para-professionals (non-teaching staff) have a powerful role to play in accessing pupils’ viewpoints and hard-to-reach parents.

An eye on Ofsted

Impress Ofsted by using Pupil Premium programmes of support as a way to prove Pupil Premium activity, spend and evidence. The new Ofsted framework stipulates that schools must demonstrate the progress of Pupil Premium students and their comparison to peers both within their school, and nationally.


Harness the power of three – collaboration between leaders, teachers and para-professionals creates a strong catalyst for change. Leaders create the teaching environment, teachers focus on pedagogy in the classrooms of these vulnerable students, and para-professionals focus on how they can support individuals and small groups to make better progress.

Learn from different subject areas. Each teacher is an excellent practitioner but doesn’t usually have the opportunity to work with others outside of their subject in their everyday work. Bringing them together to share ideas and resources can have a positive impact across the school.

Case study: Hayes School

Hayes School in Bromley has been involved in the Challenge the Gap programme since its inception. The school was becoming increasingly concerned with the disparity between FSM and non-FSM pupils.

Hayes School is a “facilitation school” for a local cluster of Challenge the Gap schools (nine this year, 15 next year). Through the process of reflection, development and collaborative sharing, the school has undertaken the following activities:

  • Set up resilience workshops for Pupil Premium students as well as run small group behaviour sessions in which individuals or small groups work on considering how their behaviour impacts their learning.

  • Created “Learning Detectives” where students observe other lessons (in year groups) to look for good learning. These students are then coached as to how they can amend their practices to become better learners based on what they have seen.

  • Implemented one-to-one mentoring where identified year 9 and 10 students are given mentoring by 6th-formers and extra meetings are held for parents of vulnerable pupils, engaging them with the school’s aims.

  • Developed information cards on each student. The cards include information on the individuals working style, what they respond well to, situations they don’t work well in etc. These cards are then passed to each teacher with the aim of developing better working relationships.

  • Brought together teachers from the English, maths and RE departments to work together to focus on progress for FSM pupils.   

  • Catherine Stevens is programme director of Challenge the Gap.  

Challenge The Gap

Challenge the Gap was founded with funding from the Education Endowment Foundation. It went from 39 schools in its first year to 130 in its second.

Challenge the Gap is a strategic whole-school programme that has been shown to improve the academic performance of Pupil Premium pupils through school-to-school learning and a collaborative approach to tackling gaps. 

It was developed by Challenge Partners and the 14 facilitation schools that run the programme. These schools deliver the programme to clusters of three to five “trios” of schools. 

Trios are led by a school that has successfully implemented the programme for one year (the lead school) or has a strong track record of delivering high Pupil Premium attainment. The other two schools are “accelerator” schools, committed to improving the outcomes of children from low-income families as part of the school’s core purpose. The trio works closely together over a year to develop and share effective practice.

Schools’ programmes are supported by a series of workshops that provide momentum, access to international research, and a focus for collaborative working. 

Teams of practitioners – leaders, teachers and para-professionals – identify, share and evolve pedagogies and interventions for their trio. They initially focus on a small cohort of pupils, which enables them to understand in detail the issues and challenges and to test approaches; those that prove effective are rapidly cascaded.

The application window for next year is currently open. Any schools that are interested in joining the programme, which starts in June/July, should email

For more details, visit



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