Despite our best efforts, the link between family income and education outcomes remains strong. One of the most powerful levers we have to address this is through the pupil premium (PP), but how can schools ensure they maximise its benefits?
Introduced in 2011, it’s easy to forget just what a game-changer this policy has been. Last school year, PP funding in England equated to £2.9 billion, an average of £1,400 per eligible pupil. Aside from the additional cash, the value of PP is that it gives schools the space to consider the specific barriers that hinder their socio-economically disadvantaged pupils’ attainment and to put in place strategies to help them flourish.
To get a better understanding of what those barriers are and what approaches schools are adopting to address them, we analysed a representative sample of 300 schools’ PP statements, which the DfE require schools to publish annually to set out how they’ve identified their eligible pupils’ needs and how they plan to use the funding to address them.
The results were eye-opening. Perhaps most strikingly, three out of four of the statements we analysed identified attendance as a barrier. Putting its urgency in stark relief, attendance was the most common challenge cited, marginally ahead of literacy.
We know that tackling persistent absence has risen to the top of many schools’ agendas. And, with pupils eligible for PP funding more likely to be persistently absent from school, there is a clear role for the it to be utilised to support attendance.
But while 86 per cent of the PP strategy statements we analysed reported spending the funding on literacy interventions, and 83 per cent reported spend on staff training and development, it was more difficult to identify common patterns in what schools were doing to tackle attendance.
This is perhaps unsurprising. The underlying factors that contribute to attendance issues are multifaceted and unique to individual pupils, schools and localities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And, while we have a sizeable evidence base around approaches to supporting literacy development, for example, our recent review of the evidence on improving attendance found promise for approaches like parental engagement, the wider evidence base is weak.
In 2023, it’s clear that if we want to dismantle the link between family income and attainment, we need to address attendance issues head-on. But while PP funding provides a vehicle for doing so, schools face a myriad of challenges and pressures when deciding how to spend it, from supporting teacher recruitment and retention to tackling pupil mental health and wellbeing.
The most effective decisions regarding PP spending are rooted in a thorough diagnosis of the specific challenges faced by eligible pupils. This diagnosis should be followed by a review of evidence to determine which approaches are most likely to have a positive impact on outcomes.
Evidence is crucial in helping schools maximise the impact of their pupil premium, and school leaders tell us they want more support with accessing and interpreting up-to-date, high-quality evidence to support their decision-making. To help, we have published a suite of resources to support schools maximise the impact of their resources.
We recommend that spending decisions are grounded in the tiered approach to PP spending. As is all too clear, there are multiple competing priorities on a school’s PP budgets. The tiered approach recognises this by guiding schools to focus their spending in three ‘buckets’:
First, on high quality teaching for PP children to benefit from. This can and should be spent on approaches to support recruitment and retention, alongside professional development for staff.
Second, on targeted academic support such as small-group or one-to-one tuition. This could be used to address specific academic challenges, but also to support higher-attaining disadvantaged pupils to meet their potential.
Finally, on wider strategies which could include support for attendance and behaviour.
By leveraging the tiered approach to PP spending, schools can build an evidence-led approach to tackling some of the challenges holding back disadvantaged young people’s learning. Given the growth of the gap during the pandemic and increasing child poverty, using this resource well has never been more important.