EEF Blog: ​The Pupil Premium – focusing on what matters

The Pupil Premium has helped sharpen focus on improving outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, writes the EEF's head of policy, Robbie Coleman. But to make a real success of itthere are three common pitfalls to avoid...

The Pupil Premium is one of England’s most popular educational exports. Many other systems – from neighbouring Scotland to as far afield as Australia – have used it as a model for similar school funding reforms.

The Premium’s sharp focus is its greatest strength. It provides additional money to improve the outcomes of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, recognising the enduring relationship between family income and success in school. In 2018, eligible students were half as likely to achieve good passes in English and Maths at 16 compared to their peers.

Almost every week, it is proposed that schools step up to solve a new societal challenge, or step in to provide a service previously offered elsewhere. But educational attainment is the best predictor of long-term outcomes for young people we have, so the Premium’s tight focus is welcome. The National Audit Office found that, after the introduction of the Premium, 94% of leaders targeted support at disadvantaged students, compared to 57% before.

However, focus can backfire. We should always look out for the potential negative side effects of introducing new policies, particularly when they come with detailed reporting requirements or are subject to inspection.

How, then, can we avoid the most common Premium pitfalls?

First, we should ensure that, above all, the Premium is used to improve the quality of teaching.

The Pupil Premium is provided as a separate grant from core funding, and this separation helps guarantee that its focus on disadvantage is maintained. However, the financial split should not lead the Premium to become disconnected from whole class teaching.

This doesn’t mean that targeted interventions should be set aside. Providing additional support undoubtedly can help, and interventions might serve as a second wave within a school’s overall strategy. But trying to implement a small number of priorities well is much more promising than a 'laundry list' approach.

The EEF’s Guide to the Pupil Premium, published this June, recommends a tiered approach to Premium spending, starting with improving teaching, and then balancing support for targeted academic support with wider support (eg, to improve attendance and behaviour).

The Department for Education has also emphasised the value of using the Premium to improve the quality of teaching in an update to its online Premium guidance just before the summer.

Second, we should be clear about the limitations of data and reporting.

It might appear natural to dedicate lots of time and energy to measuring impact. However, unless the measurements we are able to make are robust, this effort may be wasted, or even counter-productive.

I believe it is useful for teachers to be aware of which pupils in their class are eligible for the Premium. But the measurement and comparison of internal class attainment gaps is very unlikely to provide useful information, both because of the small number of students involved and because of the way the results depend on both the make-up of both the Pupil Premium and non-Pupil Premium groups.

Becky Allen comprehensively documented the limitations of bad data in a series of blogs last year, and in their new inspection framework Ofsted has helpfully stated that: “other than its pupil premium strategy, [inspectors] will not require any further school-generated data on the pupil premium, including information related to spending on individual students or to within-class or within-school gaps.”.

Third, we should avoid conflating disadvantage with underachievement.

Just as I did near the top of this article, the starkest way to highlight the attainment gap is look at low-attaining pupils. However, this narrow focus misses the important point that support for disadvantaged students is required across the spectrum of achievement.

As data from the Sutton Trust shows, disadvantaged students who achieve highly in primary school are much less likely than their peers to convert this potential into excellent grades at secondary. Yet according to the National Audit Office, in 2015 33% of schools did not target Pupil Premium funding at higher-attaining, eligible students.

In the eight years since its introduction, the best estimates suggest that the attainment gap has narrowed by approximately 10 per cent, but there is a huge way yet to go. The Premium alone will not close the gap, but, if it is considered carefully, the focus it provides can help.