Think the Pupil Premium is a £1.25 billion hoard for ICT? You’d better sharpen up, writes George Cole
The 'pupil premium' panel: Susan Hallam, Russell Hobby and Ryan SallowsMix with educational technology advocates too much and you could develop the opinion that the £1.25 billion Pupil Premium funding will probably be spent on digital devices for students.

Earth yourself to schools and teachers, however, and the message is more down to earth – it’s for directly improving the learning experience of students, and will probably be spent on staff. That was what emerged from a recent Institute of Education-hosted round table of educators and researchers organised by SAM Learning.

SAM Learning is a highly successful supplier of online revision materials for school, and the company wanted to explore how schools would be spending their Pupil Premium cash. After all, its wares, which have been consistently shown to be effective by independent research (see “Play it again SAM – and watch the grades go up”) would appear to be an ideal target for this funding.

The key answers, however, were provided by some of those involved in education who contributed to the debate. There was one example of a secondary school that is using the Pupil Premium to address issues of numeracy and literacy. It identified cohorts of pupils that needed support (not all of them FSM pupils) and used some of the funding to employ additional staff for one-to-one teaching and small group work.

The school also wanted to use the Pupil Premium to improve attitudes to school and to learning, so some of the funding has been was used to employ an outdoor education co-ordinator who manages various programmes and events. These initiatives are designed to raise self-esteem and help students who are struggling to adapt to a secondary school environment.

But Ryan Sallows (pictured), business manager Oriel High School said that while ‘"he Pupil Premium is a welcome pot of money, an extra learning assistant in the classroom doesn’t necessarily increase children’s learning”.

And Susan Hallam (also pictured above), professor of education with Institute of Education, commented further: “It’s going to be quite difficult to assess what works with the Pupil Premium, because it will depend on where the school is located, and where it’s starting from.”

New BESA research chimes with 'round table' feedback

However, new research by BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association) backs up the feedback from the SAM Learning event. And it predicts that higher pupil premium funding for schools in 2013/14 will have a significant impact on the way schools spend their budgets: "More than one third (39 per cent) of primary schools and more than half (57 per cent) of secondary schools expect to change their current spending patterns as a result of Government plans to boost Pupil Premium funding to £900 per pupil in 2013/14, boosting expenditure in primary schools by up to £95 million and £103 million in secondary schools."

The BESA report reckons that schools will most probably "use the funding to finance small group support, followed by one-to-one teaching provision, while more than a quarter of primary and a third of secondary schools say that they expect to invest in new classroom resources". So investment in resources is likely too, although maybe not as much as some have earlier predicted.

Caroline Wright, director, BESA said, “Schools are clearly willing to invest in additional resources to support pupils’ specific needs. This is very welcome news for both pupils and the economy."

As much as technology may hold the answers to some of the issues that need to be tackled by the Pupil Premium, it looks like we are going to get as many different solutions as we have issues. And not all of those solutions will involve ICT.

'Almost criminal' gap between strong and weak schools, warns Justin Baron

Justin BaronJustin BaronJustin Baron, MD of SAM Learning commented, "While there is universal agreement that the Pupil Premium is a well intentioned initiative – it is almost criminal that £1.25 billion of education funding is being spent with only lip service being made to accountability and effectiveness.

"The good schools with strong leadership teams will use this money effectively. Poor schools with weak leadership teams will not. They need help in the form of clear, robust guidelines’.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT (National Association of Headteachers) also added a sobering thought: “The higher the stakes that are attached to an area of education, the less rational the decision-making becomes.”

The SAM Learning report also addressed the issue of homework and whether we set homework for the benefit of everyone other than students. Some myths about homework were dispersed by Institue of Education researcher Professor Sue Hallam who said the academic jury was out, having failed to find any convincing evidence of the total efficacy of homework. Research shows that in order to become expert in, say, doing maths or riding a bike, we need to spend time engaging with the activity. From this perspective, homework would appear to be a useful exercise.

However, the evidence shows that there is a limit to how much progress we can make by repeating an activity, and, after a time, our progress eventually tails off. Once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you will not get any better at the mechanics of riding a bike by further practice. Once you’ve learned how to solve a particular maths problem, solving more of the same types of problems will reap little benefit.

Research In primary schools – where much of the homework tasks focus on basic skills like literacy and numeracy – suggests that homework makes little or no impact on a child’s attainment. In secondary schools, brighter and more motivated students tend to get set more homework than less able or less motivated pupils. The result is that students with a heavier homework load tend to achieve better examination results than those who don’t. But such results are more about correlation than cause-and-effect.

'Often homework is set because parents expect it'

The evidence points to the fact that often homework is set because parents expect it – and in this consumer-driven world they want to see value for money, ie more time on task. SAM Learning, however, argues that there is a compelling argument for teachers to use services like its own to set targeted and specific revision, which provides maximum results with fairly minimal input.

Justin Baron concluded: “It is a worrying state of affairs when education policy is constantly being melded to fit the philosophy, fashion and politics of the day and all this constantly outweighs the knowledge and experience of teachers and education academics. It means we can end up playing fast and loose with the future of our young people.”

Caroline WrightCaroline WrightHowever, the BESA survey (of 432 English maintained schools – 263 primary and 169 secondary) did have some encouraging feedback. Conducted in March 2013, it found that more than half of schools had already carried out needs assessments of pupil needs, and some of the others said that they expected to spend some of their allocation to assess pupil needs during 2013/14 (8 per cent primary and 15 per cent secondary).

The conclusion from BESA's Caroline Wright was positive: ”Teachers are best placed to know what support their pupils need and, with the new freedoms given to schools, we are seeing heads making evidence-based decisions to purchase quality resources to improve teaching and learning outcomes for individual children most in need of extra help.”

More information

George Cole recorded the SAM Learning event at the Institute of Education for a White Paper which you can download HERE.

 BESA’s survey was carried out in conjunction with the National Education Research Panel (NERP), provides analysis into schools’ use of the current Pupil Premium funding and considers how this may change with the increase in budgets in 2013/14.
www.besa.org.uk

George ColeGeorge Cole is a freelance journalist who writes about technology and learning. A former teacher, he is also the author of The Last Miles, a book about the jazz musician Miles Davis, and runs The Last Miles website


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