The pitfalls of the pupil premium

I’ve been following Professor Becky Allen’s work on the issues surrounding disadvantaged students. Her call for educational reform with regard to the pupil premium in England is hopeful, her messages are clear. Alas with everything in education, often purpose is lost in its translation into policy, but Becky’s voice is one which needs to be listened to. Her talk at this year’s researchED conference spoke an evidence-based truth about how the pupil premium grant, in its current form, is failing disadvantaged students. Why has this happened? What needs to change in both policy and schools? Will there ever be a solution to the achievement gap?

When it was introduced in 2011, the purpose of the pupil premium was to help schools improve the attainment of disadvantaged students. Perhaps here is where it was fundamentally flawed? The notion that an injection of money into schools would address all the factors which impact on a child’s ability to succeed was extremely naive, especially since there was an increasing wealth of evidence that school alone could not solve the problem. It could be argued that pupil premium funding was the government’s attempt at a slight of hand, whilst championing an increase in financial support for the most vulnerable in schools, it was clear that funding was being slashed in other areas of children’s services, especially where wrap-around care such as Sure Start was concerned (highlighted in The Guardian earlier this year). Additionally, the bureaucracy which schools and families would have to go through to achieve the necessary funding would ensure that the process was a lengthy and difficult one (especially in the cases of SEND). Assuming that the reason for the introduction of the pupil premium was an honourable one, where did it wrong?

Policy into practice

In 2011, it was dictat that schools would be given autonomy in how the pupil premium was to be spent in their individual setting. But was it really a case of free will? By nature of the fact that funding had to favour students in receipt of the PPG, choice was somewhat restricted. Furthermore, achievement of disadvantaged students being a key indicator in Ofsted judgement outcomes meant that practices would become distorted along the way, serving league tables rather than children. These factors aside, schools have choice in how the money is spent.

Trying to make a fluid concept (disadvantage) concrete is another fundamental flaw. To clarify, disadvantaged students at one school may look very different from those at another. In fact, every student who would qualify for the grant (and indeed many of those who don’t) would tell you very different stories of what being disadvantaged means to them. In education our obsession with metrics has meant that we need to intervene, collect data and measure impact to prove our worth. Whilst necessity, success looks very different depending on setting and values making the measurement of impact a difficult thing to do.

What is the moral purpose of the pupil premium grant and has this been lost along the way? There have been countless examples where schools have spent thousands of pounds on prize draws to reward PPG students for merely attending school or injecting silly amounts of money into initiatives such as targeted students only revision classes. You may argue that being in school improves achievement (and there’s lots of evidence to support this) but is this alone enough to improve a child’s life chances? What about the academic diet they receive? Are practices like those mentioned really improving long term opportunities for students? Do they teach the right attitudes? Are they instilling the necessay values and disciplines which will lead to sustained success as an adult? Do targeted classes fulfil the ethos of schools being inclusive?

Consider Tommy, he is one of three. His mum is an extremely proud single-parent who works two jobs to provide for her children. She’s never been in receipt of benefits but she’s always living just above the breadline. Tommy’s older sister is in the 6th Form and his younger sister is coming to secondary next September when he’ll be in Year 11. Every week the school’s finance team receive a phone call from mum to request that they move money from Tommy’s elder sister’s account into his, he’s got a voracious appetite so he always over-spends. He doesn’t go on trips because mum can’t afford to send all three of her children – so she sends none. He’s a capable student but very happy-go-lucky and a little lazy, often under achieving in lessons. He’s incredibly compliant and would benefit from extra support, encouragement and resources. Tommy doesn’t meet the criteria to be on any list.

Every school has tens of students like Tommy. When schools group by data alone children like Tommy get missed.

Is the funding failing?

Professor Allen makes a strong case that pupil premium funding has failed to make the necessary gains in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students. She also points out that it’s not the funding itself which is the problem, more the way schools spend it – the key point in my opinion. It’s important to ask ourselves if we removed the accountability measures associated with disadvantage would people admonish their moral responsibility along with it? I will always remain relentlessly hopeful in humanity to do what is right.

Finding a solution

The reality is that we’re never going to close the gap, accepting this is the first step towards finding a way to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. It’s also important to understand that whilst good practice can be shared, what works in one school will not necessarily be the silver bullet in another – no matter how similar they appear to be on paper. However, in all the research I’ve seen where schools are successful in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students the following characteristics are common:

  • A clear vision and purpose driven by the importance of a good education for all
  • Clear communication of this vision to everyone involved and how this looks in the school’s practices
  • A commitment to quality first teaching
  • A focus on improving achievement for all with the understanding that whilst this may not close the gap, there is a relentless drive to ensure that student achievement (both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged) is better than elsewhere
  • Having advocates who know the students in receipt of PPG (and those like Tommy) – someone who can give staff insight into the individual and who monitors students from a distance
  • A team of people who are knowledgeable and are trusted by families

These are the golden threads running throughout the narrative of schools who are improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. There’s a case for the narrowing of the curriculum during the EYFS and KS 1 stages with a focus on literacy to prevent gaps. Perhaps more spending at these stages both within school and with wrap-around care would be a useful place to start?

To say the pupil premium isn’t working is a fair comment to make. I agree that we need to do some things differently but there’s a danger when a salient point becomes a sound bite or when suggestions for improvements become invitations for the removal of resources. When this happens the first to suffer are always society’s most vulnerable. If you want to know what Becky thinks then make sure you read the punchline.

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Lesson plans and planning lessons

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II)

Do lesson plans and planning lessons equate to the same thing?

Who is a lesson plan intended for? Are they fit for purpose? Do the benefits of lesson plans outweigh the time taken to write them? Could the time taken writing lesson plans be used more effectively elsewhere?

It’s always good to look back on your own journey and a chance opening of a lesson plan from nearly ten years ago made me realise just how far I have come in my own teaching. It also made me question whether or not teachers are still wasting time filling in needless paperwork which is neither beneficial to their students’ learning nor does it encourage them to think about the pedagogy of their teaching. Many teachers are lucky to work in enlightened environments but are some schools still living in the Dark Ages?

Here is an example of a lesson plan I have been guilty of writing in the past….

I remember spending hours writing lesson plans, collating achievement data and colour-coding seating plans which would be happily handed to an observer/inspector upon their entry into the room. I also remember my extreme annoyance when the bundle of joy I had laid before them was simply left on a desk at the end of the lesson. What I failed to realise was just how little the lesson plan focussed on what I wanted students to learn. I often chose to focus more on how I would want the lesson to look to an observer than what and how I wanted to teach. The content and the pedagogy was last on the list. I am comfortable enough within myself for critics to say that I was bad at my job or that I didn’t understand pedagogy, however I propose that the culture of education in the early 2000s (and still now in some cases) encouraged teachers to be more show than substance. It was how my PGCE encouraged me to plan and how the school I worked in expected me to prepare my lessons. It was all that I knew. I have to admit that it was also my expectation early on in my career as a senior leader, something which I apologise for now. Thinking that main pay scale teachers can spend hours preparing lesson plans which are pointless is a completely unreasonable request and should be avoided at all costs.

Why lesson plans don’t equate to planning for learning….

Teaching is incredibly simple yet society has managed to make it both complex and convoluted. Learning should not be thought of in silos, one-off lessons of 50 or 60 minutes. This is why a thoroughly considered curriculum narrative is key to good teaching and learning. What does the journey look like? Christine Counsell explains the importance of curriculum beautifully here.

As with overall curriculum, content should be at the core of the lesson:

  • What do you want students to learn? How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • How are you going to get them from a point of novice to understanding?
  • What needs to happen along the way to create the best conditions for this?
  • How are you going to assess at various points? (short-term and long-term)

This gets missed in a lesson plan which is designed for observers rather than the teacher. A lot of information is redundant. How does the number of PP and LAC students influence the teaching of Pythagoras’ Theorem for instance? Should we not base our teaching on the assessment of students’ needs in this area rather than external, irrelevant factors? Sometimes the promotion of this information actively disadvantages students, especially where expectations are concerned. Of course teachers should know their students but surely the needs of these students differ on a lesson-by-lesson/subject-by-subject basis therefore arbitrary government-driven groups are pointless. Additionally, there is something seriously unnerving if we need to write what the teacher and students should be doing in a lesson, isn’t this obvious? It’s ridiculous to consider timings minute by minute. We should plan for general timings but teachers are in danger of losing sight of what’s important if they have a plan which they are afraid to deviate from. Sadly, I’ve been guilty of doing all of the above in the past.

Mark Enser has written a series of blogs which were accompanied by an excellent researchED presentation, this encompasses what teaching should be about. Planning should reflect this simplicity.

How my planning looks now….

Even though I’m a senior leader, first and foremost, I’m a teacher. Reflecting on and improving my classroom practice is still as important as it was when I was an NQT. Our school uses the Trivium as a starting point for our philosophy of teaching, with a focus on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (which as Jan Rowe, Head of ITT at LJMU thinks should be called Principles of Good Teaching) as the fundamentals of expected practice. You can read more about Rosenshine from Tom Sherrington here. I plan lessons looking at content and development of ideas and understanding. I think about questions and assessment of students’ learning throughout. I don’t worry too much about timings although I am aware of how long we have to teach overarching ideas (I still need to get better at this) and I know the none-negotiables which are expected at each stage of the journey. My planning focusses on using direct instruction to maximise teacher talk (thanks to Kris Boulton), retrieval of existing knowledge, reducing students’ cognitive load so that they grasp content more easily as well as deliberate intelligent practice and using variation theory to help students begin to make links (some of these lend themselves more easily to the teaching of mathematics but they’re all worth looking into). I’ve got to thank Craig Barton and Jane Jones (ex HMI) for their work which has enlightened me.

As a result of all that reading and learning about pedagogy, my lesson planning now looks like something like this:

  • What do I want students to learn? How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • How am I going to get them from a point of novice to understanding?
  • What questions am I going to ask?
  • How will I check for understanding and future planning needs?

The focus is primarily on the what and the how, I make handwritten notes. Often they stay as handwritten notes or if I have the time I’ll transfer the content to a PowerPoint or Promethean software. The beauty of my own notes is that I’m actually thinking about the sequencing of the learning and the needs of the students I teach for that topic. It also means that if a student is off they have something concrete to work from which acts as a great stimulus for catch up discussions. I’m not afraid to use a textbook or a well-considered worksheet to accompany my teaching but I’m very discerning about what I use with students. John Tomsett has written a very timely blog about his own teaching echoing such sentiments here.

My lessons don’t have as many exciting activities as they did back in 2008 but they have a much greater focus on learning and, as a result of that, students leave with a sense of achievement which in itself develops their motivation to get better. My teaching isn’t perfect, it never will be – but it’s getting better day-by-day. My planning has cut out any redundant information and is centred around the most important cornerstones of pedagogy.

The difference in my approach now is down to my environment. Having the freedom to work in a way that will be most effective is liberating. Teachers can plan in the most impactful way when SLT are not prescriptive about lesson plans or pointless bureaucratic processes. This takes brave SLT and a lot of effort on their behalf. Putting trust in staff is key, as well as putting time into individual teachers who need support to develop their practice. In the long-run it’s worthwhile.

As senior leaders, we have a duty of care to empower our teachers. Getting rid of meaningless lesson plans to encourage planning for learning is a step in the right direction.