The building blocks of Pupil Premium success

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Photo: iStock

Drawing on the work of more than 1,300 schools, new research into the Pupil Premium has identified the common successful strategies and the key ‘building blocks’ for their implementation. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

How to break down the cycle of underachievement by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and narrow the achievement gap has been an issue of debate for years. However, with the Pupil Premium funding came an element of accountability and an expectation that schools will use the money effectively to achieve the best outcomes possible for those most in need. But, with limited time and resources, how can schools be sure that a certain strategy or approach will work?

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has published a research report entitled Supporting the Attainment of Disadvantaged Pupils: Articulating success and good practice.

Commissioned by the Department for Education last year, the report found that schools had adopted an average of 18 different methods of trying to narrow this gap. It also identified common ground between schools on what strategies are effective, and highlights the experiences of the more successful schools.

Effective strategies

The report draws on the responses to a questionnaire sent out to school leaders about the strategies they have used. The most commonly used strategies were also viewed as the most effective and included:

  • Paired or group teaching.
  • Improving feedback between teachers and pupils.
  • One-to-one tuition.
  • Initiatives introduced earlier, allowing them to bed in to the ethos of the school.

Compared with less successful schools, more successful schools had introduced their most effective strategy earlier. More and less successful schools also differed in their implementation of similar strategies.

For example, when it came to small group teaching, one more successful school took pupils of similar ability out of non-core subjects for additional support. This contrasted with a less successful school which removed pupils from English lessons to use an online tool, supervised by teaching assistants who had no specific training.

Furthermore, as part of their feedback to pupils, the more successful schools had implemented detailed consistent marking schemes to recognise pupils’ achievements and identify the next steps in their learning and time was set aside specifically for discussion between the pupil and teacher. The researchers found that the more successful schools emphasised teaching and learning alongside emotional and social support, too. They also had highly effective assessment for learning systems which were straightforward to administer, provided clear feedback for pupils and contributed to each pupil’s tracking and monitoring.

Tailoring strategies by responding to the needs of pupils was another characteristic of more successful schools. The study found that these schools “had adapted interventions or developed new ones based on their experience and understanding of what they were trying to achieve”. It continues: “Their adaptations and developments were based on clear use of evidence, direct experience and observations of the initiative in practice. Less successful schools were more likely to be using ‘off the shelf’ interventions and less likely to be deviating from the prescribed approach.”

The effectiveness of approaches used by different schools was not, therefore, simply a matter of implementing targeted strategies but relied on them being “embedded in a whole-school ethos of aspiration and attainment”.

The seven building blocks

Crucially, the study identified seven “building blocks” that are common in schools that have achieved more success in raising standards among disadvantaged pupils. They are:

  • Whole-school ethos of attainment for all
  • Addressing behaviour and attendance
  • High-quality teaching for all
  • Meeting individual learning needs
  • Deploying staff effectively
  • Data-driven and responding to evidence
  • Clear, responsive leadership

The first is a whole-school ethos of attainment for all, which meant the avoidance of stereotyping disadvantaged pupils as having less potential to succeed or as having similar barriers in the way of learning.

The head of one less successful school said: “Whatever we throw at these disadvantaged children, some of them are still struggling to make that progress. They just haven’t got it. That sounds awful, but it’s a fact of life. So we don’t throw loads at these children. They make the progress that I think they are capable of.”

The leader of a more successful school, however, said: “When I am talking about our disadvantaged students I am absolutely determined that I see each of them as an individual rather than generalising them and moulding them together.”

The second building block is a clear strategy relating to behaviour and attendance, incorporating strong pastoral care in the form of social and emotional support and a quick response to non-attendance, as well as working closely with families.

The report found that “the features associated with less successful schools offer some potential insight into opportunities to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils: in particular, the finding that higher levels of pupil absence were associated with poorer outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in both primary and secondary schools”.

More successful schools had designated staff to offer pastoral support and had employed strategies to ensure children attended school – such as calling home in the event of an absence, funding or sending out transport, and working with families, often in the home, to address the barriers they face in getting their children to school.

They also understood the link between behaviour and absence and emotional support, and had put extensive social and emotional support strategies in place including strong links with local mental health services.

Another building block is a commitment to high-quality teaching for all alongside consistently high standards and expectations of teachers and pupils, monitoring performance and sharing best practice in the school.

In the more successful schools, staff were able to meet the learning needs of individual pupils, which required them to know every child’s challenges and interests, and to look closely at ways of supporting them to achieve their very best.

Rather than bolt-on strategies and activities outside school hours, in some more successful schools, pupils had bespoke timetables based on their needs. Children with specific learning needs were given the appropriate support, which might include group support for pupils with similar needs.

The effective deployment of teaching staff is seen as vital in raising standards among disadvantaged pupils, with the best teachers working with those who need most support, and using teaching assistants to support pupils’ learning.

Appropriate training is deemed vital by the more successful schools, many of whom had trained a teaching assistant in pedagogy so they understood the drivers for educational practice, how to provide quality questioning and give appropriate feedback.

One school leader said: “Before, teaching assistants would simply follow around students on the SEN register from lesson to lesson. They were as transient as the students. What we did instead was we made every teaching assistant a subject-specific teaching assistant, so they only worked within one subject. They became deployed by the subject leaders and had high-level knowledge.”

Effective use of data by staff and responding to evidence is a hallmark of more successful schools too and enabled teachers to identify individual children’s needs, review progress regularly and swiftly address underperformance.

Such schools were those with manageable assessment for learning systems, allowing teachers to give pupils clear feedback. Where schools used evidence to support their strategies they were able to make effective decisions about what worked best.

Successful schools monitored children regularly and scrutinised their progress. They also scrutinised the effectiveness of their strategies.

Finally, the most effective schools benefited from strong and clear leadership from headteachers who lead by example and set high aspirations. Senior leaders held their staff accountable, rather than accepting low attainment and variable performance. They shared their thinking and invested in staff training.

The report said: “Senior leaders in more successful schools said that deciding to alter or stop strategies that were proving ineffective was as important as deciding to adopt them in the first place.”


Overall, the report concludes that schools are able to improve disadvantaged pupils’ performance and make a positive difference to their life chances. There is no single strategy that will make this difference. Schools need to select the strategies that work best for their pupils and their school’s circumstances.

In doing so, they need to bear in mind that the quality of their implementation of strategies is as important as their choice of strategies. Even with all of these building blocks, implementing change and reaping the benefits takes time. More successful schools reported that it took “around three to five years for changes to ‘bed in’ and lead to a sustained change in pupils’ attainment”.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is an education writer.

Further information

To download the full NFER research paper and findings, visit


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