Many factors that affect a child’s attainment are outside of a school’s control, but this is no excuse for low expectations, and intelligent use of the Pupil Premium can redress the balance, says Sonia Blandford...
The need to improve the education of disadvantaged pupils, vulnerable learners and those with special educational needs is undeniable and urgent. At the recent union conferences, the Minister for Schools, David Laws, challenged teachers to narrow the gap for these children, arguing that, “No school, however impressive, can be an ‘outstanding school’ if it is not achieving excellence for its most disadvantaged pupils”.
At present, the long-term expectations for these children are grim. Only one fifth of pupils with SEN get five or more A-C GCSEs including English and maths. Predicted outcomes are even worse for those on free school meals – these pupils are four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers, and they are overrepresented in a broad range of negative measures, such as NEETs figures and in prison populations.
David Law’s challenge is backed strongly by Ofsted’s new framework, which places an expectation on school leaders (governors as well as headteachers) that they can answer the question: what are you doing to narrow the gap for children with SEN and those eligible for pupil premium funding – and can you provide evidence of how these strategies are having a direct, proven impact? Of course, many of the problems these pupils face are outside of the school environment – poverty, disadvantage, lack of aspiration.
But we cannot use this as an excuse for why schools are unable to deliver the very best they can for these pupils.
Some schools will, no doubt, have to think of new ways of operating, but for those working with Achievement for All (afa3as.org.uk), having clear strategies and evidencing impact is already commonplace. Getting the full picture Tredworth Junior School – sited in a deprived inner city ward of Gloucester – was the lowest achieving school in Gloucestershire when headteacher Andy Darby took the helm in 2002. Over 41 per cent of the school’s pupils are classified as having SEN and almost 42 per cent qualify for free school meals.
Working with Achievement for All, the school used rigorous analysis of data to identify and track the bottom 20 per cent of pupils - and the parents they needed to reach – and to plan out how to turn the progress of those pupils around. A key area of work that underpins the school’s decision making is ‘structured conversations’: regular, in-depth communications with parents and pupils. These conversations help teachers come to understand the wider picture for each student and, as a result, working together with the family to agree targets and ways in which these can be met is now standard practice. As you might imagine, additional cover was necessary in order that staff could deliver this level of commitment, and some Pupil Premium funding has been used to support this.
Parental attendance at structured conversations now stands at 97 per cent. More importantly, attainment of pupils with SEN is above average for every year group, with 81 per cent of pupils classified as having SEN achieving Level 4+ in English and maths in 2012 (the national average was 46 per cent). It’s a similar story for pupils who qualify for free school meals.
To meet these increasing demands, every school needs to ensure it has the basics right. Do you know – really know – your target pupils and their families? Do you have robust assessment and tracking systems in place? Is each pupil set clear targets? How are you trying to engage with the most hard-to-reach parents?
Schools need to be open minded about how to use pupil premium funding to ensure a positive impact on pupils – helping to remove barriers to learning, or encouraging inclusion, can be as important as specific interventions.
It’s not good enough to protest that problems are outside school boundaries, that additional funding isn’t enough, or that parents don’t support your work. Many schools are now working cleverly, creatively and effectively to demonstrate that the futures of these children – the most vulnerable in our society – can b