Research School Network: Pupil Premium and SEND: learning without labels Learning without labels

Pupil Premium and SEND: learning without labels

Learning without labels

by Unity Research School
on the

Part A

Children, pupils, students are not at risk of underachievement because they are Pupil Premium’ / SEND or any other label they may be given. They are at risk of underachievement because of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on their learning, wellbeing and personal development. A special educational need may also impact on this, exacerbating challenges. But we want to argue that a label led approach can be problematic. The fact that a pupil is eligible for the Pupil Premium, the fact that a pupil has SEND tells us very little about that pupil as an individual.

The fact that some pupils that did not reach age related expectations in reading, writing or maths were Pupil Premium and SEND does not provide useful information for teachers and leaders in planning and implementing strategies to help children to thrive. There may be a correlation between the labels and underachievement, but this should not limit our expectations of what children can achieve. The correlation provides limited information about how we respond to the needs of pupils as individuals.

The key messages here:

  • The practitioner is the intervention. We need to ensure that staff have the support, expertise, knowledge, and agency to support their learners. Consistent, high quality staff are critically important.
  • Every pupil is an individual. A focus on labels can disempower teachers and anonymise pupils.
  • That pupils with additional needs get at least equitable access to well trained, highly qualified staff in comparison to their peers.

Every pupil, irrespective of starting point and background should be given the chance to thrive by;

1) Ensuring that all staff believe that all pupils can make the necessary progress to attain well. That there is a collective responsibility for all pupils and families across the school community.

2) That adults in school are often the variable – children and families need us to be consistent: personnel, routines, interactions and expectations.

3) That children and families are socially included, and feel that they belong. In the classroom, unstructured times, in extracurricular activities, residentials and visits. In sports teams, representing school and student leadership opportunities. That families feel they are listened to and not judged.

4) That there is a meaningful understanding of the impact of low family income on learning and wider school life. Low family income can limit opportunity. It doesn’t mean that pupils lack the potential, talent or ability to thrive.

5) That we carefully assess issues that are impacting on pupils’ learning and opportunity. We can start with issues such as:

  • Family income
  • The type of special educational need –for example ADHD / ASC / SCLN / Physical disability / SEMH 
  • Other factors – family education levels, support from external agencies,

6) That we consider how these issues impact on pupils as individuals. Assessment not assumption. These might include:

  • Food insecurity
  • Housing/​fuel insecurity
  • Transport difficulties
  • Social isolation
  • Fewer opportunities outside of school
  • Family/​carer short termism as a result of a crisis cycle
  • Lack of social networks limiting access to cultural capital, wider aspects of personal development and opportunities, for example work experience, travel, clubs and activities
  • Difficulties with the cost of school life (even very low-cost items or activities)
  • Societal challenges – uncertain income and unemployment risks. Particular judgements, beliefs, and assumptions
  • Negative feelings of self-worth, anxiety and its impact on future agency and aspiration.

7) We carefully assess how these issues impact on pupils as learners. Poorly identified need leads to poorly identified activity, which leads to weaker results and initiative fatigue. It can lead to a reactive approach to supporting learners. Identifying need might include:

  • Diagnostic assessment (academic and pastoral)
  • Observations of learning behaviours the classroom
  • Specific behaviors associated with a child’s special educational needs
  • Observations of unstructured times
  • Observations of talk, listening and non-verbal communication
  • Book study
  • Pupil voice
  • Family voice
  • Teacher voice

8) Once needs are identified and understood, we carefully consider how we support individuals:

  • In the classroom, through inclusive teaching strategies, working with high quality practitioners.
  • Levelling the playing field: front loading the teaching of knowledge, avoid the presumption of language and background knowledge, celebrating the process of learning, as well as the outcome.
  • Through targeted academic support (that supplements, not supplants.). Be wary of interventions where pupils miss teacher explanation / modelling. And be wary of the disruption of pupils missing something different every week’. This can be well intentioned but problematic.
  • Consider the trade-offs (academic and social) if pupils are to be removed from class. Careful provision mapping is needed to avoid over intervention. The quality of staff leading any interventions should be excellent.
  • Any out of school learning is a helpful benefit but should not be essential to progress and attainment.

Strategies should be rooted in early intervention, improving pupils as learners through:

  • Improving self-regulation skills
  • Improving communication and language
  • Building specific, meaningful vocabulary together as a class team (not reliant on vocabulary lists from the internet)
  • Improving reading comprehension
  • Ensuring pupils receive meaningful feedback that they can act on.
  • Meaningful checking for understanding and responsive teaching
  • Exceptionally high-quality pastoral care (including supporting good attendance). Many pupils face multiple challenges before they even arrive at school.
  • Excellent personal development curriculum that pupils have meaningful interactions with their peers and build strong friendships.
  • Ensuring that pupils are able to participate in extracurricular opportunities, enrichment, residentials and wider opportunities to build social stories – the joyful, emotional memories of school life that everyone should experience.

9) That we are careful about implementation, avoiding trying to do too many things at once, stuck in a cycle of outerventions that impact on pupils academically and socially.

Dispassionate impact evaluation, focused on impact on pupils as learners. A robust process and impact evaluation framework should be adopted at the start of support – so teachers and leaders can accurately assess its effectiveness. Changes and adaptations can then be made to practise and to the strategy where necessary.

Part B

So how can we think about pupils who are disadvantaged who also have a SEND diagnosis?

By talking about PPG pupils’, we have changed our social reality. There is now such a thing as a PPG pupil’. This is ripe territory for unconscious bias. By asking the question, How do we best support our PPG SEND pupils?’ we’ve created another reality in which there is a group called PPG SEND’ roaming our corridors. And we are concerned about their attainment.

SEND does not equal low attaining. Disadvantage does not equal low attaining. Neither of these groups is homogeneous.

School leaders are likely interested in the nature of links between poverty and SEND, to better understand the families under their care. Families who are under multiple stressors, including supporting a child with SEND, are more vulnerable to being pushed into poverty. Some children growing up under the stresses of financial hardship are more vulnerable to developing SEND.

Children with SEND are more likely to become poor, while children living in poverty are more likely to develop SEND. This group of children face greater barriers than their peers in experiencing a happy and fulfilling education and greater barriers in achieving the qualifications that might create opportunities later in life.”

So, a sensitivity to individual circumstances and difficulties is of course key to building productive relationships between home and school. Most practitioners would be doing this anyway, so what should
we be doing’ about PPG SEND”?

What this group is more vulnerable to
is holding less status within our school system. If we think through an intersectional’ lens, and consider a wheel of privilege, we can think about the lived experience of someone who experiences disadvantage and has a SEND diagnosis.


Families on lower incomes or living in poverty may struggle with time and resources to navigate the SEND system in comparison to more affluent families. They deserve our care and support.

Beware of the thinking trap: particular groups as having barriers’

All pupils have the capacity to grow and develop but this severely hindered if teachers stop thinking in terms of what do they know? What do they need to know next?’.

Don’t imagine this is a homogeneous group

No pupil is the same, but thinking through labels can give this illusion. Within this group – if it is actually a group’ – will be pupils of varying strengths and needs. Some children eligible for Pupil Premium who have SEND diagnoses are exceptionally high attainers

Don’t imagine that staff haven’t already thought about pupils’ needs

Trying to think about this knotty issue, balancing thinking about societal prejudice and individual pupil need is overloading for busy school leaders. We can fall into a trap of What do I do about SEND PPG? What are their challenges?’ and feel rather lost. However, leaders already have a wealth of knowledge collected over time about their pupils, their strengths and needs.

Pupil progress meetings. Day to day, lesson to lesson, moment to moment observations. SEND support meetings. EHCP annual reviews. Parent & carer consultations. End of year reports. The information is often already there for us.

4) Look at the lived experience of pupils in classrooms

Practitioners should be aware of systemic prejudice and play their part to disrupt it. However, there is so much mileage in examining the educational experience of pupils within our classrooms.

Watch pupils of concern in lessons and consider the learning from their point of view. Can they see the board? Can they hear the teacher and other pupils? Did the teacher ensure the paired talk was accessible, successful, and accountable? Has their teacher checked their understanding? Do they need glasses? What is the quality of their interaction with staff – focused around learning and based in an interested, kindly relationship?

The challenges pupils face may be multiple and complex. External support from outside agencies may be needed (and not always readily available). Multiple challenges mean multiple complexities. Where possible, it’s vital to avoid an overly complicated response.

Pupils who experience multiple and complex challenges with their learning and personal development may need ambitious, personalised, individual approaches to help them in the short and medium term – to help them to thrive in the long term. The ambition for every pupil, irrespective of challenges they face, should be a life rooted in opportunity. The Grange Special School in Manchester is a model of good practice with this: https://grange.manchester.sch.….

Cathy Potter – Schools Based Adviser for Pupil Premium, School Performance Alliance for Richmond and Kingston, Achieving for Children

Marc Rowland – Unity Research School Assistant Director, Unity Schools Partnership

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