Research School Network: Supporting our Pupil Premium Students: An Evidence Based Approach Gaurav Dubay argues we must avoid a narrative of low expectations, vulnerability and victimhood


Supporting our Pupil Premium Students: An Evidence Based Approach

Gaurav Dubay argues we must avoid a narrative of low expectations, vulnerability and victimhood

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

I had an idyllic childhood. Whilst the world spoke about the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher, or the growing animosity between the USA and the USSR, I spent blissful hours cycling in the local park, stealing ice lollies from my next-door neighbour’s fridge, and taking the opportunity to allow my imagination – whether reading or playing – to run wild. My childhood was blessed.

Had you told me then that Heath Town, Wolverhampton, was (and remains) one of the poorest wards in England and that I was therefore precluded the opportunities of my more advantaged peers, I would have taken umbrage – severe umbrage.

Whilst I acknowledge our pupil premium students face a number of barriers when it comes to attainment and that these students have fallen further behind during the pandemic’ (2021, EEF, p2), the narrative of low expectations, vulnerability and victimhood can be damaging. If we truly want our leaders – teachers, parents and elected officials – to have high expectations of all [including pupil premium] in school’ (2021, Ofsted, p51), we must change the narrative from one of deficit to one of opportunity. Evidence is key in changing this narrative.

So what does evidence tell us about supporting our pupil premium students? I suggest three thinking points.

Start in the classroom

At the heart of improvement, schools have rightly prioritised closing the attainment gap for its pupil premium students. The way in which the funding is used to raise achievement varies but it ofen includes extracurricular activities, parental engagement workshops and the almost ubiquitous after-school-intervention slog. Each is done with the very best of intentions and undoubtedly leads to some change. However, Tereda (2019) argues that teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement’ and this view is confirmed by the research of Opper who concludes that when it comes to raising standards, teachers matter most’. To that end, the newly-updated EEF Guide to the Pupil Premium’ (2021, p3) authoritatively states that Ensuring an effective teacher is in front of every class, and that every teacher is supported to keep improving, is the key ingredient of a successful school and should rightly be a top priority for pupil premium spending.’

Very often, however, and perhaps as a result of external pressures, schools are reluctant to spend this premium on recruiting the very best teachers, and, furthermore, using this to improve the pedagogical expertise of its staff, instead placing their faith in less effective strategies – including after school interventions. Whilst interventions are important and necessary, recruiting strong teachers and investing in teacher training will undoubtedly narrow the attainment gap for all students. Moreover, research clearly tells us that the more professional development is carefully implemented, attuned to the context of its school, the larger its impact on pupil attainment’ (Colin and Smith, 2021, p14). It is, therefore, more than acceptable to use the funding to support this.

Take a long term approach

When we strip away the noise, teaching has always been about motivating, inspiring and educating our students. Anything that stands in the way needs to be addressed. It is not surprising that when as teachers and school leaders we are presented with data – unfavourable looking data – we want a quick remedy that situation and race to put in place a strategy that will solve the looming crisis. At first, the strategy may appear to be effective and to have the desired impact. However, it soon loses momentum and the overall result is, at best, a small scale improvement. At worst, it leads to no improvement whatsoever. Perhaps it wasn’t strategic after all?

The EEF guidance (2021) argues that Successful implementation of a pupil premium strategy is a carefully staged process that takes time, rather than being a one-off event’ (p10). This would suggest that the rushed-through initiatives we may put in place to support our pupil premium students aren’t the most effective ones and gives much mileage to Chang and Groeneveld (2018) who argue the need to slow down’ when implementing new strategies so that we can speed up’ the process of progress in the longer term. This approach challenges a number of things schools so often end up doing, including:

- knee jerk reactions to the latest data sets
- implementation of whole school strategies that have not be trialled or effectively researched
- intervening only with key exam groups e.g. once students are in year 11 and about to sit their GCSE qualifications.

Research consistently tells us that the disadvantage gap widens in a child’s formative years and this has perhaps increased as a result of the Covid pandemic; the need to intervene as early as possible, setting up a long term approach in order to close that gap, is paramount.

Adapt to changing needs

Our approaches are, however, constantly changing. Just as our cohorts, political landscape and nation changes, so do our methods of supporting pupil premium students.

In its 2021 guide to supporting pupil premium students, the EEF outlines four steps for our pupil premium strategy:

Step 1: Diagnose your pupils’ needs
Step 2: Use strong evidence to support your strategy
Step 3: Implement your strategy
Step 4: Monitor and evaluate your strategy

The above seems infinitely sensible and useful. When we diagnose our pupils’ needs accurately, we’re able to intervene – with evidence as our armoury – to support our strategy. We can then implement our stratagems successfully. Nevertheless, School leaders must continually monitor the progress of the pupil premium strategy, adapting their approach when and where appropriate’ and we should, therefore, not assume that strategies which have been effective in one year will continue to be effective in another.’ (EEF, 2021, p12)

Disha argues that evaluation, in the context of education, is a continuous process’ and it is this continuous process that allows us to review, refine, re-establish our strategies with a focus on greater improvement. Moreover, however, the evaluation process allows us to consider what is no longer effective and what we need to do away with. Whilst this process can create anxiety, it is an important one as it redirects our energies and efforts on the areas that will lead to greater improvement.

Final words

Schools are busy places and very often pupil premium is equated with disadvantage. We shouldn’t bend or lower our expectations of our students because of political labels. If anything, they should spur us on to provide an even more ambitious and challenging curriculum. The research supporting this is clear – high expectations lead to higher outcomes. However, beyond the research is our moral drive to improve standards and life chances for those who are disadvantaged. Documents, including the EEF’s Guide to Pupil Premium’ (2021), are not necessarily revolutionary but what they give us is the power to ensure we offer our pupil premium students the best, life changing experiences. It is the currency we need to challenge those – who through no fault of their own – succumb to the pressures of school systems and put in place interventions with limited impact in the long-term.

Gaurav Dubay

Gaurav Dubay

Evidence Lead in Education, Head of English in an inner city school in Birmingham and Subject Network Lead in English for King Edward VI Foundation

Read more aboutGaurav Dubay


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