From the magazine: Ensuring that disadvantage is not a barrier to success

The school funding crisis is leading some schools to divert pupil premium funding away from its intended purpose. Donna Tandy, academy improvement partner at Focus Trust, shares their successful approach and wonders what the future holds for disadvantaged pupils

It has recently been reported that as many as 2,000 schools will still be underfunded in seven years’ time and, with the backlash from teachers following chancellor Philip Hammond’s comment that schools would receive just £400m for ‘little extras’, it’s clear that, as a nation, more must be done to solve the school funding crisis.

The pupil premium – which gives additional backing to publicly funded schools in England – is designed to support the learning and wellbeing of disadvantaged pupils, essentially allowing for the gap to be closed between them and their peers through accelerated progress. Unfortunately, however, the ongoing funding crisis has meant that many schools are being left with no other option than to use significant proportions of their pupil premium allowance to sustain their core provision – which prevents the funding being used for its intended purpose

Driving improvements
It should go without saying that the pupil premium should not be used as the only driver to improve outcomes for eligible pupils; research shows that the strategies that make the most difference to learning do not require any additional funding but are features of quality first teaching. These include high quality feedback, metacognition, mastery teaching and collaborative learning (see EEF toolkit).

In times of financial strain in schools it is important that these mechanisms are exploited as much as possible before looking at specific spending strands because, if these approaches are fully embedded in schools, all children will benefit. This is important because some children identified by school leaders as being disadvantaged are not those who are in receipt of the funding; guidance clearly states that pupil premium funding can be used to support any child who is deemed to be at an educational or social disadvantage by the school.

Speaking from experience, having seen, first-hand, the struggles schools go through to, not only establish best use of any funding they are given, but also to effectively evaluate its outcomes for ongoing improvements, we – as a trust – have implemented a strategy to ensure the money spent will benefit identified pupils, the school as a whole and, where possible, the wider trust.

Focus Trust approaches
Since its introduction in 2010 the pupil premium initiative has received its fair share of backlash and criticism, with confusion over spending allocations and even more confusion when navigating the ways in which each individual should benefit whilst maintaining a culture of ‘fairness’ and, ultimately, whether or not any headway is actually being made towards decreasing the ‘gap’.

As a trust, we have worked collectively to raise the profile of disadvantaged pupils and ensure that pupil premium funding is used effectively. Each of our academies has an identified pupil premium champion, often a senior leader, who has oversight of these children and supports all staff to ensure their deficit of learning or experience is closed.

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The trust now also has a pupil premium charter which clearly outlines the trust-wide vision on disadvantaged pupils, and our commitment to them. A key feature of this is the development of excellent teachers and support staff to ensure all pupils have access to the most effective strands of research. My role – academy improvement partner – is to oversee this and support leaders in the evaluation of the impact of their spending.

In essence, the benefit of a trust system is that resources or training developed by one school can be shared with all schools within the trust, meaning that the success of one school’s pupil premium funding can be felt throughout all the constituent schools.

Autonomy to interpret
With a cohesive strategy and vision we ensure the high profile of a significant group of children in our care. Across our 15 schools, the percentage of eligible pupils ranges from 13% to 41%. As the context and needs of disadvantaged children differ from school to school it is important that, while we have a vision, key principles and high expectations that underpin our approaches, academies have the autonomy to interpret these to best fit the needs of their pupils.

However, with the current status of funding crisis amongst UK schools, it’s understandable that any funding provided – pupil premium or otherwise – is quickly used in attempts to alleviate the crisis and its immediate effects, often without taking into consideration longer term issues that the pupil premium was introduced to tackle in the first place.

As part of the 2018 autumn budget, £400m in extra capital funding was allocated to be spent on core provisions including equipment and maintenance and, although deemed ‘inadequate’ and ‘a drop in the ocean’ by many, the overall Department for Education budget has, for now, increased to £5.6bn.

The question is, to which the answer remains somewhat unknown, how can schools balance their ability to spend enough on running the school itself whilst safeguarding its pupils and staff, and how far will the current funding stretch to ensure that disadvantage is not a barrier to lifelong success?

Donna Tandy is academy improvement partner at Focus Trust, a charitable multi-academy trust based in the North West of England made up of schools from across West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

This article featured in the February issue of Education Executive. Subscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.

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