Pupil premium seems to be one of those things that is ‘on trend’ in education right now. For years and years we knew that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often struggled to reach the academic achievements of those in the so-called leafy areas. Having to report on the achievement of pupil premium students – amongst every other kind of label we can put on students – means that, at my school at least, we’re sometimes expected to be teaching three or four, or more, lessons at once.
In the old days this was differentiation. Some students struggle with some things, others with different things, so you planned and delivered your lessons accordingly. For most, including me, most of the labels were somewhat irrelevant. It didn’t matter if a student was pupil premium, or on free school meals, or had high or low prior attainment, or had a mild learning difficulty (because in my school at the time, there were more on the SEN register in most of my classes than not). If a student struggled with sentence structures, they got help with it. If they were fine with using sophisticated punctuation, then we focused on something else with them.
With such an emphasis on pupil premium these days, it’s led to some interesting discussion in our staff and department meetings about what we’re going to do to try to close the achievement gap. This is all anecdotal and specific to my school, but I’d be interested to know if it’s similar in other schools or if anybody has any other thoughts or suggestions.
One of the first things that needs to be tackled is the prevailing idea that pupil premium equals low ability. The ability profile across our school is definitely lower than in other areas, but that’s not to say that it has anything to do with the level of deprivation amongst our students and their families. I’ve had this discussion – some would say argument! – with several staff in my school. When I was observed last year, 11 out of 23 students in the class were labelled as pupil premium students. I was expected to teach a separate lesson to those 11 than I was to the other 12 (more if you then take into account the SEN register, EAL needs, prior attainment etc). The issue for me, and what caused the greatest debate later, was that the majority of those students in that class doing that particular work, did not need extra support. And yet, I was expected to prioritise their needs over the needs of non-pupil premium students who actually needed a greater level of support.
The overarching idea behind pupil premium funding, at least in my mind, is to help provide the resources and experiences to students who don’t get it naturally at home, to bring them in line with students who do. At least, this is how it was sold to us initially. Paying for them to go on trips, giving them access to technology, providing extra resources like textbooks – these things are supposed to level the playing field, so to speak. Simply teaching multiple lessons within a single lesson, particularly when some of those students don’t actually need the extra support in that class and sometimes at the expense of those who do, doesn’t really seem to be levelling anything at all.
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to the issue of labelling students as pupil premium (or anything else). I remember being told, and reading research on it (though 15+ years later I couldn’t tell you who wrote it) that students will live up to the label that you give them. If we publicly identify students as pupil premium, the idea that we are perhaps limiting students sticks in my mind. It’s a term that is used quite freely outside of schools, and whilst the students themselves might not know exactly what it means, there’s a good chance that their parents will.
At a department meeting on Friday, there were two schools of thought on this. Both meant identifying the pupils not just on our own registers for our own planning. The first was something that another school had done. They called every pupil premium student in the school into an assembly, and outright told them that they had this label and what it meant for them. They called them ‘premium pupils’ and essentially told them that in all of their classes, they’d be students who a lot of the time would be given extra support and attention. There’s some advantages to this, not least of which is that it takes away any question in the minds of the students and staff about what it means and it also makes it clear that it’s nothing to hide away. This would solve our problem, or at least go part of the way, that some of our students think that they’re only pupil premium in some subjects but not all. I hands up admit to being part of that problem so far as I’ve not openly told students in my class that they are pupil premium.
On a smaller scale, one of the departments I teach in is looking at using seating plans to help tackle closing the pupil premium achievement gap on a practical level. I’m not going to lie, putting together these seating plans has been something of a nightmare. I used to do them based on behaviour and who I knew needed the support of being placed close to me or to the TA. I’m having to seat them with pupil premium students together at the front, but also boy/girl and by alternating high/middle/low prior attainment. I’m fairly certain that splitting an atom is a simpler process. The end result of this is that with pupil premium students at the front, they’re going to be at the forefront of your mind when giving support and hopefully when planning lessons. By sitting them boy/girl, we’re hoping to inspire the boys a little bit more – our girls’ achievement far outstripped our boys last year, but at least 200% in most cases. The same is expected by seating them with alternating prior achievement.
There’s no simple solution to this and as I said earlier, it worries me that labelling these students is going to have an impact on their mindset, the same was as thinking ‘I’m a D student’ or ‘I’m in bottom set’ has done in the past. But I also know that if we continue to do the same things we’ve always done, that achievement gap isn’t going to narrow, let alone close. So for now at least I’ll be a team player and make sure my students know that they’re pupil premium and plan 28 lessons instead of the 14 that are on my timetable.