March 2014


  • The state of independence
    Autonomy isn’t a new concept for schools and colleges but its success in the long-term depends on everyone being honest about what it means and costs, as well as the provision of safeguards for schools and colleges that get into difficulty, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Be prepared
    Leora Cruddas suggests some key activities for schools and colleges to undertake ahead of changes to the curriculum, assessment and qualifications. More
  • Premium: Make it pay
    The Pupil Premium gives us a huge opportunity to change for the better the lives of poor and disadvantaged young people, says John Dunford. We need to exploit it to the full. More
  • A head for heights?
    The profession needs more outstanding heads but they won’t materialise unless we ensure that teachers can access top-quality development from the moment that they set foot on the career ladder, argues Ian Bauckham. It is up to leaders to seize the initiative. More
  • Meaningful dialogue
    Better parent-school relationships can have a profound impact on pupil attainment, particularly for those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, says Professor Sonia Blandford. More
  • Widening the leadership horizon
    Today’s young people are the leaders of tomorrow. We need to help them understand the world beyond theirs and how their lives and roles overlap with other communities, or tensions will continue to arise when cultures collide, says Ken Swan. More
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The Pupil Premium gives us a huge opportunity to change for the better the lives of poor and disadvantaged young people, says John Dunford. We need to exploit it to the full.

Premium: Make it pay

Since 1997, the government has tried to close the educational achievement gap between disadvantaged children and others in England and has had little success. Achievement of young people at GCSE has risen considerably but the gap has remained stubbornly the same.

Is it a realistic aspiration that schools can narrow this gap or should we accept that there will always be a gap between the achievements of the poor and the rest of society? As natural optimists, can school leaders make a real difference to this situation?

Any definition of the purpose of education would surely include maximising the life chances of all young people by making them work-ready, life-ready and ready for further learning. And any national school system should surely recognise that this is a more difficult job for schools with some young people than with others. That recognition is at the core of the Pupil Premium and its laudable aim to narrow the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged young people and others.

Twenty years ago the Council of the Secondary Heads Association (as ASCL was then called) debated the plight of schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas (SCIDAs was our acronym for this). We campaigned for extra funds to enable them to do more with disadvantaged pupils, especially where they had a large number.

London Challenge effect

To an extent, our campaign yielded results as one initiative after another – Excellence in Cities (EiC), Education Action Zones (EAZs) and so on – was rolled out by the government. But only when the London Challenge began to target individual schools, instead of whole areas, did additional funding produce significantly improved results for city children.

The Pupil Premium is better than all of these schemes in that it funds schools for every individual disadvantaged child – and the additional funding dwarfs all previous schemes. In 2014–15, the funding will total £2.5 billion – a big commitment on the part of the government and a huge challenge for schools to use it successfully to close the gap.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and others is much larger in England than in most other countries – and it becomes wider as they get older. A 16 per cent difference between disadvantaged and others at age 11 becomes 26 per cent at GCSE grades A*–C, including English and maths. In some counties, the gap at age 16 is a shocking 40 per cent.

Good school leaders are never defeatist and, in my work as Pupil Premium C Champion, I have met no resistance to the notion that schools should use this money to close the gap and be held to account for the progress and attainment of disadvantaged children and the size of the gap. Indeed, leaders recognise that few things could be more important for schools than finding the best ways of giving extra support to disadvantaged young people.

Moral purpose

Effective use of the Pupil Premium is at the core of the moral purpose of school leadership. There are at least six things that schools can do:

1 Prioritise closing the gap, ensuring that every member of staff is fully signed up to the importance of doing so.

2 Study the evidence of what works and implement the strategies that are likely to be most effective in the context of the school. Use the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit and study excellent practice in other schools that are successful in closing the gap.

3 Train all the staff in depth on the strategies to be adopted. Success won’t come without this.

4 Regularly collect and analyse data on the gap and target strategies at the needs of individual Pupil Premium children.

5 Raise aspirations by working with the parents as well as young people.

6 Plan the curriculum so that disadvantaged young people leave school with the knowledge and skills they need.

In the words of Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): “Our data shows it doesn’t matter if you go to a school in Britain, Finland or Japan, students from a privileged background tend to do well everywhere. What really distinguishes education systems is their capacity to deploy resources where they can make the most difference. Your effect as a teacher is a lot bigger for a student who doesn’t have a privileged background than for a student who has lots of educational resources.”

This strikes a chord with our mission as school leaders. If we can respond to the massive challenge to use the Pupil Premium funding to close the gap, we will have gone a long way to fulfil the purpose of education for the young people who need it most. We will have accepted the notion that no young person, by virtue of their birth, should necessarily achieve less than others.

This is a challenge to which every school leader must respond.

  • Dr John Dunford is National Pupil Premium Champion and a former general secretary of ASCL.

Twitter debate on the Pupil Premium

As part of the Great Education Debate, ASCL and Dr John Dunford held a Twitter discussion about whether it is possible for schools to close the achievement gap through the Pupil Premium. John took part along with ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman and ASCL President Ian Bauckham. Below is a summary of the many tweets received:

A prevailing theme of the discussion was that long-term measures are vital to sustain success in closing the gap. Contributors discussed how vital it is to get all staff onside and thoroughly briefed on chosen Pupil Premium strategies for maximum effect.This includes the governing body, as they will have a big role to play in decisions regarding, and monitoring of, the Pupil Premium.

It was noted that the strategies with the biggest influence are those that promote high-quality teaching and learning.

Getting the support and involvement of some parents was highlighted as a concern, followed by an exchange of ideas in order to increase parental engagement.

Throughout the debate there was a sharing of initiatives that are used in schools and a general feeling that a combination of macro and individual interventions is needed in order to be fully successful.

ASCL wants to know your views on all of these issues and questions. Here’s how you can get involved:

Host a debate in your school or college and capture everyone’s views. For help and advice on how to do this, email

Join us on Facebook at

Tweet us @GreatEdDebate and also use the hashtag #GEDebate

Join the discussion and post your views on the website where you can also download a resource pack.