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Sharing thoughts and experiences of different schools…

Post 5 – ‘Catch up?..’

As we look forward to welcoming all of our students back in to our schools we are surrounded by a national narrative based upon ‘catching them up’ and ‘recovery curriculums.’ This type of language is unlikely to be helpful in achieving what it is setting out to do. As teachers we need to be careful not to make assumptions on the current levels of our students before we actually know. These assumptions can be dangerous in that they are likely to lower our expectations, particularly of disadvantaged students, and we need to ensure that we are not subconsciously labelling them so they are in danger of becoming what Marc Rowland describes as the ‘Covid cohort’.


It’s even more important that we consider the language we use around our students. We know that there have been enough emotional and social pressures on them already, without us adding to them by continually reminding them that they are struggling academically too! This use of language will be hugely important in reducing the anxiety that many are likely to be feeling: We need to avoid phrases like ‘catch up’, ‘missed learning’ or ‘cramming’ and instead focus on ‘building on’, ‘revisiting’ and ‘strengthening’. A focus on building resilience and knowledge, rather than trying to ‘repair’ is what will be important here (The British Psychological Society have some helpful resources linked to this).


Our aim with this project is to address the educational disadvantage that we currently have in East Sussex and our key long-term aim to aid in this was on more effectively diagnosing the educational needs of our disadvantaged students. On reopening this will be more important than ever: We must gain an understanding of where our students are (both academically as well as socially and emotionally) before we plan any type of spending. As we’ve discussed previously, we need to be talking to our students themselves, as well as their families and teachers, to ascertain how they’ve adjusted to any changes. The role of diagnostic assessments will once again be incredibly important. Alex Quigley, the EEF’s national content manager, has recently written a useful blog post on the roles that these can play


As ever, the biggest impact we will be able to have on our students is in the classrooms. Welcoming them back with the same positive relationships, clear routines and high expectations that we formed prior to this latest round of remote learning, will surely be the most effective way to mitigate any issues they may have faced. In a recent blog post that I shared from Dr Daniel Nicholls, he outlined some useful reminders with regards to this. These include:

  • Delivering our curriculum with purpose and passion and building curiosity in our students through this.
  • A focus on clear explanation and modelling in order to scaffold understanding and inform of us of the appropriate time for progression.
  • Deliberate practice to build confidence and success with challenging tasks.
  • Regular high quality feedback (he suggests that these ‘feedback loops’ are a key factor in advantaged children achieving more due to their experiences of this at home)
  • A focus on literacy and language, particularly on oracy.

Although the current situation will have clearly affected the brilliant work schools were undertaking with the funding for this project, as mentioned before, a number of colleagues have commented on how they felt better prepared for understanding the needs of their students this time around. The hope is that the initiatives put in place can resume on our return and that they will continue to be helpful in addressing the educational disadvantage identified in our various settings. I will continue to share the impact that schools are having in different areas in the hope that it could help others’ with their identified areas of need.

Post 4 – Reflections & Evaluating impact…

The last two terms have clearly been a challenge like no other. As discussed previously, we know that some are predicting that the disadvantaged attainment gap may have widened by as much as 75% as a result of the partial school closures earlier in the year. The task of trying to ensure that our students are appropriately ‘making a dent’ in that gap was always going to be difficult enough, even before mentioning some of those dreaded phrases like ‘track and trace’, ‘self-isolation’ or ‘x-coding.’

That being said, I’ve been incredibly proud of the way in which our students have returned to us since September, and attacked their education with a new-found appreciation for it (many of those I spoke to during closures admitted how much they missed school, not that they would ever admit that in front of their peers!)

I’m sure we’d all agree though, even this hasn’t made it a smooth ride: As we knew it would, the pastoral side of things has been just as, if not more, important than the academic stuff as we deal with anxieties around anything from masks to mock exams. Now more than ever, it’s those rock-solid relationships that we form with our disadvantaged students in particular, that serve as the constant in a confusing and difficult time for them.

Undoubtedly managing all this takes a significant amount of time (not to mention the emotional toll and effort). That’s why I’m so grateful for the way in which schools have engaged with the project and the time you’ve all taken to discuss your ideas and plans with me with such enthusiasm.

Now that individual projects are up and running could I please ask that you focus on those ways in which you will evaluate the impact. Below are the suggested methods taken from the initial project outline:

  • Attendance/ exclusion rates
  • Attitudes to Learning
  • Progress/ attainment data
  • Student, parent or teacher voice
  • Progression routes – NEETs (clearly these may come later on)

It would be easy to argue that for too long National reporting measures on the pupil premium have lead to accountability issues driving strategies, rather than what is necessarily best for students.  Can I please ask that we reflect on this when evaluating our projects:  Our evaluation shouldn’t be done as another accountability measure, but a way to assess the effectiveness of our plans in helping to support our students overcome the identified needs that we took the time to initially diagnose and highlight.

As discussed previously, there is a longer-term aim and legacy to this project and our ability to evaluate what works and what doesn’t for our students, and sharing these through collaboration,  will be hugely helpful in hopefully narrowing the disadvantage gap across the County.

Post 3 – Creating a long-term impact…

This project is clearly an exciting opportunity to support some of our most vulnerable learners who are likely to have been impacted as a result of closures. Our current Key Stage 4 students are of course a priority due to the timeframe in which they will (probably) be taking exams and so we need to ensure that efforts are focused on mitigating any impact from potential lost learning time. Later in this post I will share some examples of excellent ideas that schools involved in this project are using in an attempt to do this.

What is also clear however, and something that has been unanimously agreed on with the leads involved, is that the project needs to have more of an impact than just a short-term win with the next few year groups. We know that an effective pupil premium strategy doesn’t just mean launching intervention after intervention at Year 11 and that creating the right culture with all students and staff is far more important (the previous blog post below discusses a whole-school culture) and so I was keen to ensure that there was a legacy left by the fantastic work happening in schools across the County as a result.

It quickly became clear that a simple but potentially impactful idea for this was for schools to really focus on the key areas of need for their disadvantaged pupils, and importantly how this was leading to educational disadvantage in the classroom: There is clear evidence to suggest that for too long the national picture with regards to pupil premium has been driven by labels and a culture of planning how to spend, before accurately diagnosing the issues to overcome first. This has resulted in various intervention-lead strategies which are not fit for purpose in improving the progress of disadvantaged pupils, or indeed in targeting the most in-need pupils.

The table below highlights how just a handful of the schools involved in our project have taken time to identify those key areas of need, through a combination of focused data analysis as well as student, teacher and parent voice. This has lead to a planned use of their allocated funding, focused solely on aiming to overcome these issues.

What areas of need have been identified?How will the funding be used to support these needs?
Gaps identified in knowledge in 5 key subjects (widened further through closures)– Setting up a breakfast club with a different subject focus on each day of the week to include tutoring in small groups to key pupils.
Competency with ICTLower aspirations than non-DA peers leading to lack of motivation for exams– Weekly training on ICT use & individual support
– Bespoke careers guidance & support with next steps to engage students in their studies.
Struggling to close the gap with lower prior-attainers.
Lack of motivation for studies re long-term outcomes (need short-term targets)
– Purchase of the programme ‘Tassomai’ (after successful trial/pilot) to set short-term goals and daily tasks individual to each identified student.
DA boys (particularly summer-born) attitudes towards education leading to outcomes not in-line with non-DA peers.– Setting up ‘Boys Network’, run by a member of staff working towards their NPQML. Focus on links to industry, study skills, raising attainment and improving attitudes.
Significant anxieties around exams and issues around effective study habits– Bespoke exam & wellbeing support package with Andrew Wright (‘Action Your Potential’)
Gaps in knowledge (particularly core subjects) as a result of lockdown.
Lack of resilience, particularly in reference to mocks/exams
– Mentoring programme set up, focused on developing resilience and motivation towards exams & next steps.
– Small-group English and maths ‘catch up’, specifically designed in to short sessions
Students arriving at school not ready to learn (hungry/lacking equipment/not completing independent study)– Breakfast club to include nutritional breakfast, homework support, provision of equipment for the day and one-to-one subject intervention.

Now that these initiatives are beginning to be delivered, the next step will clearly be for schools to effectively assess their impact and quality assure their delivery. I look forward to discussing this further with schools over the coming term – It’s really exciting to see these ideas being put in to practice across the County and they will, I’m sure, be of real benefit to our students, both over the coming year and in the long-term.

Post 2 – Developing a whole-school approach…

This post is adapted from a presentation I recently gave to Essex LA schools on the same topic. It’s clearly a really important subject and one that can often take time to see results from. Nevertheless, I would argue it needs to be the number one priority for schools.

Creating a culture…

I’ve always loved this quote and it’s a great one to start with on the topic: Now obviously nobody is saying that our Pupil Premium strategies don’t matter – clearly a well-considered strategy, based on the educational needs of our students is going to be vital. But for me, any form of sustained success is going to be very difficult without the right ‘culture’ being present. It’s important to say that clearly this can’t be created overnight, or simply achieved through an ‘off the shelf’ intervention, but getting all stakeholders to pull in the same direction has to be the best way to achieve the strongest long-term outcomes for our students…

Question: WHAT IF I LEFT MY SCHOOL TOMORROW?

…I always think that this is a really important question to reflect on for Pupil Premium Leads and the answer you give yourself may well give a real indication as to whether you’re on the way to creating an effective culture or not, and indeed, the desired whole-school approach. If your answer is that ‘things would simply fall apart without me’, then in one sense it might make us feel valuable and good about ourselves. But if we’re really being reflective, it’s likely to be more of a case of us not quite cracking it yet. So ask yourself if you’ve got all possible stakeholders in these students lives aligned; teachers, SLT, governors, families and obviously the students themselves, all pulling in the same direction to create an environment that all are proud to be a part of.

“I’VE CRACKED IT! OH, WAIT…”

At the end of my second year in the role, this (right) was me: Very pleased with myself and probably with an over-inflated sense of self importance after our Year disadvantaged Year 11s had just achieved our strongest ever set of results for such a cohort and all but closed the attainment gap. I’d cracked it. I could now just sit back and relax and watch the outcomes continue to improve. Clearly I was wrong and just a few months later I was feeling much more like like Leo in the second half of Wolf of Wall Street (excuse the reference) – Crumbling and wondering how all that success was effectively being undone right before my eyes. And this is so often the problem here isn’t it? The very nature of these results, and often the groups themselves, is so fragile and hugely cohort-dependent. The moment you think you’ve got it nailed, is probably the moment when things will start going the other way again! What I would say however, is that regardless of the cohort you’ve got going through exams each year, by creating the right culture you can see sustained improvements in other really important areas: We’ve been fortunate enough to see the attendance of our disadvantaged students improve every year for the past four years and the gap in attendance close with it. It’s a similar story for our engagement in the wider curriculum; in clubs, trips and in leadership positions, where essentially we don’t have a gap. For me this can only come from creating the right culture, where we’re seeing improvements year on year, even though the attainment gap might fluctuate slightly over the same time.

‘NEEDS, NOT LABELS…

If you were to look at this picture and link it to Pupil Premium, I think you could see it in two ways: It would be easy to look at the number 10 sitting there and think of the disadvantaged student; potentially feeling isolated and not having the same opportunities as her less-disadvantaged peers. But what if we were to flip it on it’s head and consider that same student as a non-disadvantaged student, who actually could need the support far more than those who are eligible for the pupil premium and who are having one intervention after another thrown at them. It could well be the case that that student is missing out simply because she doesn’t have that ‘label’ attached to her. And so by generalising like this, not only are we likely to be not effectively diagnosing the issues surrounding our disadvantaged students, we’re probably missing a trick in supporting other students who need an equal, if not higher level of support. It’s important to remind ourselves that pupil premium students are not a homogeneous group. Marking on seating plans or chucking loads of free stuff isn’t going to cut it – Staff must be encouraged to focus on educational need, not labels.

SYSTEMS CONTRIBUTING TO A WHOLE-SCHOOL APPROACH…

  1. Are we able to have a focus on disadvantaged students embedded in to our CPL? If possible, have messages drip-feeding in to staff throughout the year, with time allocated to staff to reflect on those messages and plan for them. Is it possible for your school to have one of your CPL cycles dedicated to the topic and time given for colleagues to mix across departments, for high quality discussions and planning.

2. The model on the right is a simple version of the data analysis model that we have developed over the last few years. We have found it gives us the ability to plan and evaluate the impact of intervention in the classroom and allows departments the chance for high quality discussions on the needs that could be impacting progress of our disadvantaged students, in their subjects,

3. The key battleground here will always be in the classroom so it’s vital that we try to create a culture of intervening early, in lessons, through effective wave 1 strategies. To this end we’ve actually created a document for staff to reference which includes examples of such strategies, all grouped in to previously identified areas of need for our disadvantaged students. These certainly don’t form an exhaustive list, but things that we’ve found to be effective in the past and staff have found them helpful in creating their own examples for their respective departments.

Post 1 – Project launch…

Whilst I’m sure that none of us can think of anything better to be doing than reading yet another report of how doomed our education system is, The EEF recently published a rapid evidence assessment (here) on the impact of school closures on the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their non-disadvantaged peers, suggesting that

‘Plausible “good” and “bad” estimates range from the gap widening from 11% to 75%.’

It would be easy to argue that these estimates are somewhat unhelpful. Obviously there is the main issue of the wildly different numbers being suggested and the fact that these will vary hugely between schools in different contexts, but perhaps even more important to consider however is that these can do absolutely nothing to tell us about the impact on individual children, or their needs.

Whilst everything is pointing to the fact that Covid19 will undoubtedly have had a negative impact on the disadvantage gap, it would be wrong of us to assume that there wasn’t a significant issue before the time when the majority of us thought that ‘zooming’ was something you just did in a really fast car, or before the word ‘unprecedented’ became the most used word in the English dictionary : In a recent study conducted by the EPI (here), mostly  prior to school closures, it found the estimated gap in East Sussex was nearly two years of learning by the end of secondary school.

The aim of this project is to combat this gap across the County through the sharing of research, resources and knowledge via effective collaboration between schools. Aligned to this is funding designed to support with schools’ individual plans.

So on to the ‘recovery plans’, as they have come to be commonly known: Whilst there are several resources out there to support in the writing of these (including some here on this site), clearly these will need to be flexible and subject to change throughout the year (as that great wordsmith Mike Tyson once said – “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”) They should start with effective diagnostic assessment of pupil need (rather than assumptions), focusing on the following questions:

1. What is the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on learning?

2. How does it feel to be a disadvantaged student in lessons in our school?

Once we are comfortable with the answers to these questions, we can begin to plan initiatives designed to mitigate such factors. Whilst these interventions will undoubtedly be important, we should remember that it is still the quality of relationships that we form with our students that is likely to have the most profound impact on their experiences of school: Talking on a recent podcast hosted by Sandrigham Research School, the excellent Marc Rowland said something which really resonated and is surely something we have to take forward as we face what is sure to be a very challenging year for us and our students:

‘It’s a thousand little moments that lead to great attainment for disadvantaged pupils rather than those big, shiny interventions.’

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