Making the pupil premium count

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College. Tinie Tempah was there. So was Al Murray, Piers Morgan and a host of other A-list speakers. When I say they were ‘there’, I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that they were actually there in person sitting at the back of my session. That would be daft. I do like to think that they might have thought for a split second that the pupil premium panel that I was a part of might have been worth a listen. But they didn’t. The nearest I actually got to Mr Tempah was that I retweeted him. And as for Messrs Morgan and Murray, well at least I was on the same page as them in the alphabetical list of speakers in the festival programme. Not many people can say that.

So seeing as they missed it, and most probably you did too, this is broadly what I said.

Chaired magnificently by Anna Trethewey (@annatreth), and joined by @MaryMyatt and @Khawar_Malik, each of us on the panel were afforded 5-10 minutes each to extol to the masses who turned up our thoughts and views on ‘how to spend the pupil premium wisely’. This proved to be very difficult because 5-10 minutes is clearly not enough time. However, I think I made a fair fist of it.

1. Build a shelf. Despite the fact that almost 80 per cent of those listening were not aware of the EEF toolkit, I still made the point that you should choose carefully. There is a danger that schools adopt a ‘supermarket sweep’ approach to filling their trolley with strategies and interventions in the hope that if they pick the ones at the top of the list, the gap will close. It’s really not as simple as plucking them off the shelf if, as a school, you do not have a shelf yourself on which to sit them. By shelf, I mean an organisational culture or set of core values and beliefs that underpin and support all that you do. Spend time building your own solid shelf and getting the climate and ethos right before you start raiding the store.

2. Back to basics. Better still, whilst building the shelf, invest time and effort in going back to basics and being clear about what good quality first wave teaching looks like in your school. Agree on a set of ‘non-negotiables’ around effective learning and ensure that these are applied consistently across the whole school. Once you have these, you can then begin to use strategies that are consistent with your pedagogical approach.

3. Don’t weigh the pig. As a general rule of thumb, if I come across something that works in a school and it’s difficult to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Be cautious if the strategy that you are pursuing requires constant and continual measurement. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing pupil premium funded activities as only being of value if they improve test results. Of course this is important, but simply viewing the toolkit as a means of plugging gaps in knowledge is shortsighted. Avoid interventions at all costs. Instead, consider using pupil premium funding to provide opportunities to teach children how to become better learners by allowing them to develop their soft skills such as resilience, independence, collaboration or critical thinking (shelf, notwithstanding). With this in mind, perhaps one of our highest impact projects is our pupil premium funded social enterprise that teaches children how to be social entrepreneurs in a purposeful context. It also prepares them for the world of work. You can read more about this here and here

4. Greatest good for the greatest number. Choose strategies that have the most impact across all subjects and areas of learning. One of the earliest approaches we took was to spend funding on technology, ensuring that it impacted across all areas of learning. Each child now has a device and 24/7 broadband connectivity at home. This allows us to flip the classroom which has shown to have a significant impact on closing the gap. Have a look at @mathsflip, an EEF funded project we took part in for more information. A utilitarian approach will also be well-served by adopting strategies that impact on meta-cognition, feedback and peer-assisted learning (PAL). We use our funding to employ a team of DIRTy teaching assistants to ensure the gap remains closed as part of Directed Improvement Review Time. We also employ staff to run PALs sessions where a more able child teaches a concept they have mastered to a group of pupils that require additional support. It is also entirely appropriate to spend the funding on partnerships with external organisations who develop the whole child. Examples of those that we currently work with include Real Ideas Organisation, Creative Alliance, University of the First Age, and of course the Whole Education Network (we are a partner school).

5. The killer question. Finally, ask yourself this question: If pupil premium funding was stopped tomorrow, which (if any) of your strategies would you continue to fund yourself? If the answer is ‘none of them’ then you are doing the wrong things. The strategies that you use to close the achievement gap need to be sufficiently valued such that you would be doing them anyway because they are fundamentally at the heart of all that you believe to be high quality teaching and learning. If this is so, then you are indeed spending your pupil premium wisely.

A job for the TA-team

On Monday morning we began our week with a round of applause. Granted, it was a mild one at that, but the intentions were well founded. It was simply our little way during morning briefing of celebrating National Teaching Assistant Day and thanking our team of teaching assistants. As a multicultural school – more than 40 different languages are spoken by the children – we rely on a large team of TAs, many of whom are bilingual to support the learning of our pupils. They do a fantastic job and without them we know that we would not have achieved 100% expected progress in both English and Maths in this year’s SATs.

So to celebrate National Teaching Assistant Day, here are 5 reasons why TAs are a good thing:

One | They close the attainment gap. When deployed effectively, a TA who is well trained with excellent subject knowledge can definitely close the attainment gap when working with a targeted group of pupils. Providing the work is pitched at the correct level and the TA is able to work with the intervention group over a period of time, real learning gains can be made. The cynics may point to the fact that it’s impossible to align the gains with the TA and it’s most likely a cumulative result of good teaching in the classroom. But I disagree. Of course, good teaching helps, but high quality small group intervention does make a difference be it with an EAL, SEN or more able group. The influential Sutton Trust report of 2011 ranks the impact of TAs almost bottom when compared with all other improvement strategies. But this is more likely a reflection of the lack of management and effective training and deployment of the TA than their ability to exercise influence.

As an Ofsted inspector I so often observe lessons where a TA just sits there for the first 20 minutes and then passively patrols the class looking busy. Of course standards are not going to improve. In our school, we now have an inverse attainment gap where the disadvantaged pupils outperform their peers. We know that when well deployed, TAs do make a difference.

Two | They are integral to the staff team. During the last ten years or so the number of TAs in schools has more than doubled. The National Agreement had a lot to do with this and lorry loads of TAs were shipped in to carry out the list of admin duties that teachers were banned from doing. As a result, we created a workforce expert at using pritt sticks, double mounting and climbing chairs. The focus was entirely on assisting the teacher rather than learning. Thankfully we have now moved away from this with the very best schools deploying TAs to support the learning of small groups of pupils.

The Teaching Assistant profession are not helped by the fact that we don’t actually have an agreed name for what to call them. When I was a headteacher in London they were called Teaching Assistants, but on joining my current school in the West Midlands they were known as (and still are) LSAs or Learning Support Assistants or LSPs, Learning Support Practitioners. The aforementioned Sutton Trust report refers to them as Educational Assistants, or even – and I’ve yet to come across this term – ‘Paraprofessionals’. We also have higher level TAs, mentors and coaches, in addition to TAs who work as family support advisers. Whatever we chose to call them, a well-trained practitioner who assists with teaching and learning in and around the classroom be it academically or pastorally will always make a difference.

Three | They make pupils feel safe and secure. In the news recently was a primary academy in Derbyshire that placed 2 qualified teachers in every classroom. As a result, every child in the class achieved a Level 4 in English and maths. In terms of rapid improvement  the results are stunning, given that four years ago just over a quarter of the pupils hit the benchmark. But I can’t help wondering whether or not similar results could have been achieved with a well deployed teaching assistant. After all, at VPA we’ve shown that every single child made at least 2 whole levels’ progress and this was partly as a result of the targeted interventions of our TAs. It was also because they made the children feel safe and secure in their learning.

Children are very aware of the difference in role between a teacher and a TA  even though we go to great lengths not to overemphasise the difference. (I defy you to come into a lesson and tell the difference between the teacher and the TA.) So when a child first arrives at school from a war-torn country, starving hungry and without a word of English, that first line of support from the TA is priceless. Whether you have one teacher or two, such is the demand on their time that with every will in the world, it is impossible to provide the pastoral, social and emotional support our most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils crave. Simply hearing an adult who speaks their own language will immediately open more doors than the best-intentioned overworked teacher. Being able to reach out to a TA , often on the quiet, is important to a young child who demands immediate attention.

Four | They help enrich the learning experience. Our TAs love dressing up. I can’t vouch for what they get up to at home, but in school it’s a common sight to a see a TA go into character and become a fairy or a pizza delivery person or a clown. Central to our NICER curriculum is the concept of immersive learning. We rely on a continual stream of imaginative hooks to capture children’s imagination. Classrooms are turned into all manner of different places with strange characters appearing through mystery doors or time portals. Enter, stage left, the Teaching Assistant. Learning outside the classroom is a key ingredient of the immersive learning experience, be it our Forest School, peace garden, chicken coop or playground. The role of the TA is key in supporting the teacher in pimping up the environment.

Likewise, when we go on trips. Take our recent annual Grand Day Out in which all 450 pupils flocked en masse to Birmingham on a fleet of vintage Red Buses. Could we have achieved this without TAs? No. How about when we chartered our own steam train on the Severn Valley Railway or a flotilla of boats on the Avon canal? Not a chance. So if a school wants an immersive, purposeful and magical curriculum, then without TAs it simply won’t happen.  

Five | They bridge the gap with parents. Parents appreciate teaching assistants. I know only too well from my days as a teacher myself that when the umpteenth parent tells me something first thing in the morning about their child’s skin condition it would go in one ear and out the other. (Still does as a headteacher for that matter.) But when it’s told to a TA it sticks: What’s told to a TA stays with a TA. And if it stays with a TA, then action is taken, the teacher is kept informed at the next appropriate moment and everyone is happy. So as a stressed out teacher, having a TA on the playground is golden.

With so many of our parents not speaking English, our bilingual TAs especially, play a key role in bridging the gap. Culturally, many of our parents find it difficult to approach teachers as they have never been to school themselves. Whenever I need to speak to a parent about a matter then one of our TAs will translate for me. This helps in several ways as it softens the blow somewhat as their presence can diffuse the situation. Our weekly INSPiRE workshops with parents simply would not happen without TAs. This allows us to build trust between the home and school so parents feel confident at speaking to any member of staff. Our parents also know that our TAs attend all staff meetings and weekly professional development meetings. They know that they deliver a whole range of intervention packages as well as before and after school clubs. They know that they teach daily phonics sessions to their children. Most importantly parents know that our TAs wipe snotty noses, provide shoulders to cry on and make their child feel special.

And so, as a headteacher and parent myself, I sleep well at night knowing that the paraprofessionals are always on duty standing guard over our children. So let’s all be upstanding for another round of applause for the unsung heroes…Teaching Assistants.