We shouldn’t judge disadvantaged pupils purely by the academic achievements of students in the best schools, but if used well, the premium is the way to lift barriers to learning

According to the Fabian Society, the number of children in poverty will increase from 2.5 million today to 4.4 million by Christmas 2030. Whether that terrifying prediction comes to pass remains to be seen, but we can be certain that child poverty is not going away. The challenge of tackling educational disadvantage continues. There should be no let-up in our efforts.

At the same time, social policy in areas such as housing do not make things easier. Neither do budgetary challenges in schools. While things are not going to become easier, educational disadvantage can be overcome. I believe this because over the last three years I spent time in schools doing precisely that.

History is littered with examples of poor leadership leading to devastating outcomes for the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Some of the worst come from maritime history. Read about the Medusa, the Amphitrite or the Batavia for starters.

Similarly, school leadership plays a critical role in tackling educational disadvantage. It is crucial school leaders ensure everyone understands their role in making school a great place to learn for all: from the school reception to midday supervisors to governor meetings. The same applies whether the school has 2 per cent or 72 per cent of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The most effective schools benchmark outcomes for disadvantaged pupils against the very best schools. Last autumn, I spent some time at Burnt Mill Academy in Harlow. This school never talks about “expected levels of progress” or says “you should see the attainment on entry”. They benchmark against the highest performing London schools and expect to outperform them.

The term “closing the gap” should be confined to the past. Our focus should be attainment for all. Closing the gap puts limits on what disadvantaged pupils can achieve. It assumes they can only do as well as the average score of their more fortunate peers. Further, the terminology discourages schools from doing the most important thing: improving the quality of teaching every pupil receives each day.

In the early days of the pupil premium, one of the mistakes made – extra funding for children on free school meals – was treating disadvantaged pupils as a homogenous group. Increasingly, secondary schools are using their pupil premium to create time to get to know their disadvantaged pupils better, so their support can be increasingly personalised.

If analysis of the barriers an individual pupil faces shows parents are not reading at home to children, it should flag up that the child needs to receive even more support in being read to at school. This is what the pupil premium is for.

If a school is experiencing high turnover among staff, that is a significant barrier for disadvantaged pupils. It’s no good spending funding on catch-up intentions, ICT hardware or music lessons if there is a different teacher in class each month. If recruitment and retention is a challenge, offer excellent continual professional development; increase non-contact time used to plan and evaluate approaches to maximise impact on disadvantaged learners.

One area where there could be significant improvement is in primary-secondary transition. If a pupil in year 6 has received intensive support throughout primary school, the secondary school has got to have this information. Both phases have to take responsibility for continuity of care, otherwise the learner suffers.

There is a need to think about success with the pupil premium beyond narrow academic outcomes. If a pupil achieves age-related expectations at the end of primary but that only lasts two terms at secondary, it can’t be considered a success. While five A*-C grades, including English and maths, may open a door, it doesn’t necessarily mean a student will have the confidence or connections to maximise those hard won achievements.

It is important to remember that success may look very different for some young people with multiple barriers to learning. I would never suggest we should have low expectations for young people with special educational needs, but we need to look at the catastrophic employment statistics. For every young person, success with the pupil premium should be about opportunity and independence.

These things take time. The pupil premium can create time to support disadvantaged pupils and creates an opportunity to do more with more.