Pupil Premium: money matters, but nothing matters more than the teacher

Sir Kevan Collins on the impact of the Pupil Premium in schools after five years

When the Pupil Premium – additional money allocated by national government direct to schools to boost the learning of disadvantaged pupils – was introduced in 2011, its harshest critics dismissed its chances of tackling what is, for me, the biggest issue facing our education system: the attainment gap between students from low-income backgrounds and their better-off classmates.

Some said the pot was too small to make a difference (though its value has grown significantly in the past five years, and is now worth up to £1,320 a year per eligible pupil). Others said the problem is impossible and it would prove to be yet another expensive and doomed effort, and, anyway, schools in challenging areas already received significant funding to reflect the needs of the communities they serve.

I’ve always been more of an optimist, however. For me, the crucial difference with Pupil Premium funding is that it is linked to the individual‎ children and young people it is intended to benefit. Primary schools, secondaries and (since 2015) early years settings all receive additional funding for every one of their pupils classified as disadvantaged, including those eligible for free schools meals. Schools and nurseries are free to spend their Pupil Premium allocation addressing the specific needs of their children and young people – after all, who knows better? – whether they need help catching up in reading or maths, or, alternatively, could benefit from additional support to help stretch them into achieving even better grades.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Pupil Premium has enabled schools do more to improve the learning of their disadvantaged pupils. I have seen it at first-hand when visiting schools and when judging the Pupil Premium Awards, with leaders up and down the country using their funding in innovative and effective ways.

And this impression is confirmed by new polling published today by the Sutton Trust and the EEF showing 98% of primary and secondary leaders saying their Pupil Premium funding has allowed them to target resources at raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils to a greater or lesser extent. I think it’s particularly significant that 79% of classroom teachers agree, as that’s a big increase from the 53% the same survey found in 2014. This suggests that the Pupil Premium is beginning to achieve real cut-through in the classroom.

Having the resources to target support at disadvantaged pupils is the first step to closing the attainment gap. But it is how those resources are spent that will really make the difference. At the EEF we believe that evidence of ‘what works’ is key to making sure the Pupil Premium has the maximum possible impact. We are fortunate in education that our colleagues in this country and around the world have been innovating and evaluating – and, crucially, sharing – their ideas for decades. As a result, we are equipped with a vast body of knowledge of what has worked in the past (as well as what hasn’t), which can help guide our decision-making today.

The challenge has long been to bridge the divide between education research and classroom practice. The Sutton Trust–EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, launched five years ago and joined by our Early Years Toolkit last year, is designed to do exactly that, providing guidance for professionals on how to use their resources (including the Pupil Premium) to improve the learning of disadvantaged children. According to today’s polling, 60% of senior leaders in secondary schools say they use our Toolkit to help decide which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupil learning, an increase from 48% in 2015. Encouragingly, it’s also increasingly engaging classroom teachers as well, with 27% now saying they use it in their work.

This is welcome news. One of the main challenges in tackling the attainment gap is the big variation in the performance of similar schools with equivalent resources. Our Families of Schools database has revealed, for example, that in the top performing school of one ‘family’ of similar schools, 90% of their disadvantaged pupils achieved a Level 4B – the level most likely to lead to getting five good GCSEs later on - or higher in their Key Stage 2 Maths exam. In the worst performing school in that family, the equivalent figure was just 40%.

More and better use of evidence within the teaching profession is crucial in ensuring we secure more reliability in our system, so that children and young people are well-served no matter where they live and no matter what their background. If today’s polling is anything to go by, we are certainly on the right track.