The Pupil Premium: On Her Majesty’s (not so) Secret Service

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: iStock

Inspired by the release of the latest James Bond film, Sean Harris discusses the 007-themed principles that have driven his work to close the attainment gap and deliver effective Pupil Premium outcomes

Loaded with a critically scrutinised moral purpose and a licence to close schools, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (code name: Ofsted) is charged with the task of holding schools to account, so that they help all students to succeed – including those eligible for the Pupil Premium.

As the world heads to the cinema for another 007 mission, I thought it wise to share my own mission – to rid the world of the villainous attainment gap – and the lessons I learned while attempting to complete it.

During my first year of the Future Leaders leadership development programme, I focused on key stage 3 transition and progress. As I entered my second year I knew that, for my professional development, I needed exposure to forensic data analysis at a whole-school level.

More importantly, my school leadership team had realised that we needed to focus more specifically on the needs of the 53 per cent of our students eligible for Pupil Premium, and address serious areas of weakness in our provision for our most disadvantaged students.

The school had seen the attainment gap at GCSE (five A* to C measure) widen over recent years and this caused significant concern. A recent inspection triggered the urgent need for a review of the use of Pupil Premium funding.

Sean Connery is quoted as having said: “There is nothing like a challenge to bring out the very best in people.” This is certainly my experience of using Pupil Premium funding to close the gap.

Here are the principles that guided me as I worked out the challenges facing our Pupil Premium students, and how we could overcome them within a limited budget.

Principle 1: They only live once

It is all about the children and their outcomes. Everything we do as school leaders must be focused on helping our students to have the best possible life chances. It sounds simple, but keeping this in mind is vital when faced with the challenges presented by the quest to close the gap.

Principle 2: Not just for your eyes only...

I knew from my Future Leaders training that, unlike James Bond, a school leader can’t go it alone. If I was to improve the outcomes of our Pupil Premium students I would need the wisdom of M (the leadership team); the gadgets of Q (the data team); some charm with Moneypenny (the budget holders); and support from other field agents (all teachers and support staff).

A key way that I got staff on board was through creating case studies of a random sample of our Pupil Premium students. It is easy to become bogged down in free school meal data, the marginal ways in which gaps are narrowing and expanding across different areas of the secondary school. The children get lost behind these constantly changing numbers.

We interviewed each student in order to understand the challenges facing them from their point of view, and to learn about their aspirations for the future. The case studies included:

  • Their barriers to learning.
  • The provision that was in place for them.
  • What additional provision was needed.
  • A projected cost for this necessary provision.
  • Links to the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

The toolkit acts as a live summary of educational research, including the latest resources available to improve the attainment of disadvantaged students. It gave staff immediate access to a wealth of ideas that had a proven track record, without requiring them to read large volumes of research. Linking the research back to individual students helped to show staff the potential impact of improving practice and providing these students with the resources they needed.

Establishing these case studies as a starting point set the parameters to allow us to show evidence of impact on our students further down the line, both for our own records and to show to inspectors.

Principle 3: Show me the money (penny)

Once we had completed these case studies we knew what provision was needed – now we needed to put it in place. While the school received a significant amount of funding for its Pupil Premium students, this funding had already been allocated to a host of interventions that were not those I had identified as necessary.

I looked at all Pupil Premium students in year 11, and worked out what we were providing for each of these students and how much it cost. We were then able to identify where Pupil Premium money was going, following it right down to individuals. This meant that we could determine the impact of our current interventions – and decide which to keep.

This evaluation will help the school to allocate funding in future years, so that we stand up to scrutiny and – more importantly – do the best we can by our most disadvantaged students.

For example, one department leader showed how using Pupil Premium funding to purchase taxi transport to and from revision sessions allowed some students to attend, where previously limited access to money and public transport had presented a barrier. As a school we were able to show that allocating Pupil Premium funding to the salaries of support and careers advisory staff helped to boost the attendance and aspirations of some of our students.

Other spending was found to have limited impact, or impact that was hard to measure. For example, the purchase of wholesale revision resources allowed all students to have access to revision literature, but this was not personalised or targeted and some students admitted to not using these resources.

We were able to divert funding from these less-effective measures towards new, necessary interventions, including:

  • The use of an external agency, recommended by the PiXL and Future Leaders networks, to deliver maths GCSE interventions during academic holidays.
  • The same agency delivered additional qualifications to some of our disadvantaged students in order to ensure that they left us with a good number of GCSE qualifications. These included film studies and the European Computing Driving Licence.
  • Some of our departments offered intensive-study sessions for students during academic holidays, and provided incentives to encourage students to attend. One department witnessed almost 100 per cent of year 11 students attend on a Bank Holiday by offering free pizza.
  • One-to-one mentoring for some of our disadvantaged students in partnership with their parents.
  • “Welcome to Year 11” evenings to help parents to build healthy study patterns into the home environment.
  • Allocating a member of the senior leadership team to champion the needs of Pupil Premium students and track their progress with the deputy head and curriculum leaders.

Principal 4: Do you expect me to talk?

James Bond “villains” get a bad rap; sometimes exposure to external scrutiny is necessary. Don’t wait for the difficult meeting with HMI, invite a Pupil Premium reviewer to come and conduct a thorough review of your use of Pupil Premium funding and provision, and it will improve both your readiness and your school’s practice.

As a school, we volunteered for an HMI panel review around our use of Pupil Premium funding in front of other headteachers from across the North East of England. This helped prepare us for more formal scrutiny later, particularly encouraging us to be more forensic in our use of data around Pupil Premium students.

We introduced a Pupil Premium data review twice a year to ensure that staff were reporting regularly on attainment gaps in their subjects, and were requesting any additional provision that was necessary. After this, we hosted regular meetings with an identified Pupil Premium link on the governing body to maintain our readiness.

Principle 4: The name’s PiXL

PiXL was vital in allowing us to achieve the rigorous approach to data that is necessary to improve the achievement of a particular section of students. They provide a host of gadgets (of the non-007 variety) to diagnose educational gaps in classrooms; challenge schools to provide interventions for students that need to achieve more; and test whether these interventions work. PiXL helped us in a number of ways:

  • We used their Personal Learning Checklists to help some of our staff to identify the needs of their students, and put in place necessary interventions. PiXL calls this “diagnosis and therapy”. This was a significant improvement on previous years, when interventions had generally been applied across year groups, without the targeting that makes them most effective.
  • PiXL challenged us to look outside our school for useful interventions, and we identified a wealth of external courses that allowed our students to secure additional qualifications that helped them to leave year 11 with better prospects. We used PiXL’s Walking Talking mocks to simulate real exams for our students, improving their resilience when it came to exam time.
  • Sharing ideas among the PiXL network and meeting like-minded schools helped us to think more creatively about the ways in which we raised aspiration and achievement among our Pupil Premium students.

Impact: Tomorrow never dies

This was the first year in which our attainment gap narrowed, reducing from a 32 percentage point difference to 25 percentage points. The number of Pupil Premium students achieving expected progress in English rose from 42 to 55 per cent. A further 16 per cent of Pupil Premium students made better than expected progress in both English and maths – and all this in a year when the school as a whole achieved its best ever GCSE results.

Various sources of scrutiny, including a Pupil Premium review commissioned by HMI and the Regional Schools Commissioner, found that we are now aware of the needs of Pupil Premium students and the actions that must be taken to close the attainment gap.

One virtual headteacher, who visited to monitor one of the looked-after children at the school, was impressed by the ways in which we had linked all of our interventions to the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. As a result, our tracking template is now considered exemplary practice for supporting looked-after children and is used by other schools.

The school has been asked by a number of other schools to co-facilitate informal Pupil Premium reviews to help share good practice of tracking impact. This sharing of best practice speaks to the Future Leaders value of “no islands” – when we share our knowledge and skills we can achieve more.

Although these are impressive outcomes, I’m still not satisfied. We need to keep striving to eradicate the gap completely – that’s the mission I’ve been charged with by Future Leaders, and unlike James Bond, I can’t dispatch it in a 120-minute film.

  • Sean Harris is now assistant headteacher at Norham High School in Newcastle upon Tyne, although this article is based on work at his previous school. If you are shaken or stirred by this article or would like further information about the interventions discussed, contact

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