EEF Blog: Is Pupil Premium ‘doomed to success’?

James Richardson Senior Analyst at the EEF on the Pupil Premium;

What makes a successful education policy? According to Stanford Professor, Larry Cuban, who coined the phrase “policy churn”, successful measures are the ones that lead to real change in the classroom. As he points out, too many education policies create legislative changes that ripple the surface, making little impact on day to day practice.

Ofsted’s latest report on the Pupil Premium suggests this maybe a policy that has avoided the churn bin and is making an impact improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Looking at a sample of 151 inspection reports it concludes that there is little difference between what good schools and weaker schools spend their money on. Both pursue a mix of cost effective measures and relatively expensive and minimally effective strategies such as class size reduction and ‘raising aspiration’ interventions. The report suggests that the difference in school performance is down to good leadership and management by those implementing the initiatives. In the hands of skilled teachers and senior leaders, Pupil Premium is making a difference. In weaker ones, the attainment gap remains stubborn.

Best practice or evidence?

What should school leaders learn from this report - is it just that we need good leaders and teachers to manage interventions well, or is there more to making a success of the pupil premium?

The report doesn’t have anything to say on which strategies are more effective than others so there is a temptation for school leaders to respond to by looking for quick fixes to narrow the attainment gap and copying the ‘best practice’ of top performing schools. The notion of best practice implies a shot of success that can be easily replicated in classrooms across the country. It appeals to an education system that is desperate to iron out disparities in performance between schools, but we should be cautious of the ‘just do what I do’ approach to school improvement.

We have too often in the past lacked the research rigour to isolate and measure exactly what is working in schools and are equally too eager to confirm impact for our efforts, so that everything in education seems to work. Every new initiative and innovation is ‘doomed to success.’ The conclusions of this report seem to fall into that trap: the concerted efforts of dedicated senior leaders and a large injection of Pupil Premium funding is enough to close the achievement gap regardless of the effectiveness of the strategies employed.

Effective use of the Pupil Premium

When we are evaluating an education policy that is spending nearly £2.5bn of public money, it is important that lessons are drawn from rigorous, insightful analysis. There is emerging evidence that the Pupil Premium is having an impact on narrowing the attainment gap at KS2 and KS4. This is likely to be particularly striking when the threshold 5A*-C English and Maths measure is replaced with Attainment 8 and Progress 8.

Although the Ofsted update doesn’t refer directly to using evidence to inform interventions, it is useful in highlighting what we have long known about implementing evidence based approaches in schools: it is the skill and judgement of individual teachers and school leaders in implementing it that will ensure it makes a difference in the classroom.