December 2011


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What’s the best, most effective way to spend the pupil premium? A report for charity the Sutton Trust has produced some surprising findings. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Running on empty?

The pupil premium was an election manifesto promise from both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Distributed for the first time in April, it is intended to help narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils.

Though the premium is currently worth £488 per child eligible for free school meals, this figure is set to rise significantly in future years. In 2012-13, the total funding will double to £1.25 billion and will rise to £2.5 billion by 2014-15, after intensive lobbying from the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition government. The original proposal from the DfE was merely to redistribute funding that was left after budget cuts.

Ministers have indicated that schools will have freedom over how they spend the money – minus the £50 million ring fenced by the deputy prime minister for summer school programmes – and there are no guidelines to follow.

However, there will be accountability m measures. From this year performance tables will contain information about the impact schools have made on narrowing gaps in achievement between different groups. From next year the government will also publish online information about how schools report that they have spent the premium. The DfE will start to provide schools with details of interventions which have been proven to work. What is clear is that schools will have to demonstrate that the pupil premium funding is making a difference, or the danger is that the funding will disappear altogether.

In light of these developments, earlier this year The Sutton Trust, a charity which focuses on education and social mobility, published a Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium. Drawing on studies from the UK and US and pulled together by a team at Durham University, it assesses a range of strategies for improving attainment based on effectiveness and value for money. These are some of the key findings.

One-to-one tutoring

The report found that intensive individual tutoring, usually of around 30 minutes, three to five times a week, has particularly helped children who are lagging behind in English and maths, with some pupils making strides of up to five months. The evidence examined by the Durham team shows that the use of teachers in one-to-one mentoring is more beneficial than a classroom assistant or volunteers. However, it adds to the costs: a single pupil receiving 30 minutes of tuition, five times a week for 12 weeks, is equivalent to four full days of a teacher’s time or about £800 (based on a supply rate of £200 per day), almost twice the amount of the current premium.

Peer learning and peer-assisted learning

This can take many forms but usually involves pupils working in small, mutually-supportive groups. The report consider models where older pupils tutor younger pupils, and groups of learners work collaboratively with their own peer group.

It has been found to be especially beneficial in plugging gaps in both reading and maths at primary and secondary level. There are no great cost implications though it requires some organisation by staff and teachers may need training to lead it effectively.

Teaching by learning styles

This requires teachers to set tasks and objectives which can be completed using any one of a variety of approaches. Teachers also have to identify each child’s preferred method of learning, which can vary by subject and change over time.

The report found that studies on the effectiveness of teaching by learning styles have proved inconclusive, and in children of lower ability no evidence has been found of significant benefit. Costs are low, though tests to determine pupils’ learning styles may have to be paid for.

Reducing class sizes

Once considered a panacea for under-achievement, small class sizes were thought to be effective in increasing contact between teachers and individual pupils. However studies looked at in the Sutton Trust report said the impact is relatively small unless the number of pupils in the class drops below 15, when benefits include improved attitude and conduct, as well as attainment. The use of classroom assistants has not been found to make a significant impact in studies from the UK and US, suggesting it is the input of a qualified teacher that is important.

At most, reducing class sizes can result in up to two months’ additional progress in some pupils. But the costs are prohibitive: a class of 30 pupils, with half receiving free school meals, would attract a combined pupil premium of £7,320 – not enough to employ an extra teacher.

Teaching assistants

Teaching assistants have made little impact on attainment, according to most of the studies examined for the report, though impact is greater where they are given specific intervention roles or responsibilities. Their impact remains roughly half that of a qualified teacher, and they are least effective with low-attaining pupils. The average cost of employing a teaching assistant is £16,000, about half that of a qualified teacher on point four of the main scale.

Ability grouping

Teaching pupils with similar attainment levels in classes is thought to make teaching easier and more effective. It may help higher-achieving pupils, who can work at a faster pace, but evidence gathered over 30 or more years suggests that it can damage the confidence of pupils working at the opposite end of the spectrum whose overall performance may deteriorate.

There are no significant cost implications to setting or streaming but low-achieving groups –likely to include pupils on free school meals – thrive better in mixed-ability classes.

Parental engagement

Parental involvement is usually associated with pupil success but the report found little evidence to suggest that it boosts attainment. Nor is there evidence that raising parental aspirations will lead to better attainment or higher aspiration in children themselves.

Parental engagement programmes, which range from literacy and number sessions to workshops on good parenting, vary hugely in cost depending on the activity. They are unlikely to show any positive short-term impact, and would require schools to evaluate and monitor their impact over the longer term.

After-school clubs

The report looked at extra-curricular sessions, both academicallyfocused activities like booster classes in literacy or numeracy and those that provide social and developmental opportunities, such as sport and music.

Studies suggest that children who take part in after-school groups do better academically, while those who are at risk and from lower-income families also benefit socially and display improved behaviour, which can lead to improved attitudes to learning.

Extra-curricular activities vary hugely in cost depending on their type and the staffing levels required but, on average, are about £10 a day for each child. Assuming each child would attend for half the school year – or 100 days – it works out at £1,000 for each pupil.

Early intervention

These programmes tend to focus on young children from disadvantaged homes, and often include activities that involve the whole family in an attempt to instil positive attitudes towards school and learning. Their impact in the UK remains inconclusive, according to the report. They need to last all day rather than a few hours to be effective, and continue for up to a year. It is thought that, over time, they improve attitudes towards school rather than lead to increases in attainment.

Costs tend to be high because of adult to pupil ratios in pre-school, and average around £900 per child a year.


Establishing a clear link between expenditure and learning is not easy, The Sutton Trust report concludes. And while expensive schemes may instinctively appear the most effective, this is often not the case. The picture is far more complex and the correlation between spending and outcomes for disadvantaged youngsters needs to be put in the context of the school, the levels of knowledge of teachers and the social background and attainment of pupils.

As such, finding effective ways of spending additional resources is more of a challenge than it might appear.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Download the full Sutton Trust report

Closing the Gap Conference

ASCL is holding a national one-day conference on 5 March 2013 in Birmingham to help schools identify strategies to improve achievement of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those receiving free school meals in light of the reporting requirements for the pupil premium. More information will be available on the ASCL website

Running on empty