The pupil premium is not working (part III): Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

On Saturday 8th September 2018 I gave a talk to researchED London about the pupil premium. It was too long for my 40-minute slot, and the written version is similarly far too long for one post. So I am posting my argument in three parts [pt I is here and pt II is here].

I used to think social inequalities in educational outcomes could be substantially reduced by ensuring everyone had equal access to our best schools. That is why I devoted so many years to researching school admissions. Our schools are socially stratified and those serving disadvantaged communities are more likely have unqualified, inexperienced and non-specialist teachers. We should fix this, but even if we do these inequalities in access to experienced teachers are nowhere near stark enough to make a substantial dent on the attainment gap. In a rare paper to address this exact question, Graham Hobbs found just 7% of social class differences in educational achievement at age 11 can be accounted for by differences in the effectiveness of schools attended.

Despite wishing it weren’t true for the past 15 years of my research career, I have to accept that inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom. If you want to argue with me that it doesn’t happen in your own classroom, then I urge you to read the late Graham Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, to appreciate why you are (probably) largely unaware of individual student learning taking place. This makes uncomfortable reading for teachers and presents something of an inconvenience to policy-makers because it gives us few obvious levers to close the attainment gap.

So, what should we do? We could declare it all hopeless because social inequalities in attainment are inevitable. Perhaps they arise through powerful biological and environmental forces that are beyond the capabilities of schools to overcome. If you read a few papers about genetics and IQ it is easy start viewing schools as a ‘bit part’ in the production of intelligence. However, at least for me, there is a ray of hope. For these studies can only tell us how genetic markers are correlated with educational success in the past, without reference to the environmental circumstances that have allowed these relationships to emerge. Similarly, children’s home lives heavily influences attainment, but how we organise our schools and classrooms is an important moderator in how and why that influence emerges. Kris Boulton has written that he now views ‘ability’ as something that determines a child’s sensitivity to methods of instruction; so the question for us should be what classroom instructional approaches help those children most at risk of falling behind.

Having made it this far through my blogs, I suspect you are hoping for an answer as to what we should do about the attainment gap. I don’t have one, but I am sure that if there were any silver bullets – universal advice that works in all subjects across all age ranges – we would have stumbled on them by now. Instead, I’d like to take the final words to persuade you that our developing understanding of the human mind provides teachers with a useful language for thinking about why attainment gaps emerge within their own classrooms. Whether or not they choose to do anything about that is another matter entirely.

Focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status

In earlier blogs I have argued that noting the letters ‘PP’ on seating plans does not provide teachers with useful information for classroom instruction. Labelling students by their educational needs is helpful (and essential for secondary teachers who encounter hundreds of children each week) and I think paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status. Cognitive functions are top-down processes, initiated from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, that are required for deliberate thought processes such as forming goals, planning ahead, carrying out a goal-directed plan, and performing effectively.

The neuroscience of socio-economic status is a new but rapidly growing field and SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention. There is much that is still to be understood about why these inequalities emerge, but for a teacher faced with a class to teach, their origins are not particularly important. What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess.

Implications for the classroom

Unfortunately, translating this knowledge about social inequalities in cognitive function into actionable classroom practice is difficult and rather depends on the subject and age of children you teach. Maths teacher-bloggers find cognitive load theory insightful; other subjects less so. This is because developing strategies to overcome limitations in working memory through crystallised knowledge is more productive in hierarchical knowledge domains (maths, languages, handwriting, etc) where the benefits of accumulating knowledge and fluency in a few key areas spill across the entire curriculum.

That said, I think social inequalities in attention and inhibitory control affect almost all classroom settings. Attention is the ability to focus on particular pieces of information by engaging in a selection process that allows for further processing of incoming stimuli. Again, this is a young field but there are studies (e.g. here and here) that suggest it is a very important mediator in the relationship between socio-economic status and intelligence.

When you see a child who is not paying attention in class, what are they attending to? Graham Nuthall’s New Zealand studies showed how students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom:

They whispered to each other and passed notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organised their after-school social life, continued arguments that started in the playground. They cared more about how their peers evaluated their behaviour than they cared about the teacher’s judgement… Within these standard patterns of whole-class management, students learn how to manage and carry out their own private and social agendas. They learn how and when the teacher will notice them and how to give the appearance of active involvement. They get upset and anxious if they notice that the teacher is keeping more than a passing eye on them.

We tend to assume that attentiveness is an attribute of the child, rather than something it is our job to manipulate. Teacher and psychology researcher, Mike Hobbiss, says we should instead view ‘paying attention’ as the outcome of instruction methods. In a blog post he urges us to create classroom conditions that are likely to engender the effect of focused attention by making our stimuli as attractive as possible and by reducing other distractors. We could do this by having students face the front, by controlling low-level disruption, and by removing mobile phones and fancy stationery materials, and so on. And since attention is limited (and more so in some children than others), he points out that: ‘capturing attention is not in itself the aim. The goal is to provide the optimal conditions so that attention is captured by the exact stimuli that we have identified as most valuable’.

There are a number of very successful schools I have visited where shutting down the choices about what students get to pay attention to during class is clearly the principal instrument for success. I am glad I have visited them, despite the state of cognitive dissonance they induce in me. On the one hand, I am excited to see schools where the quality of student work is beyond anything I thought it was possible to achieve at scale. On the other hand, their culture violates all my preconceptions about what school should be like. Childhood is for living, as well as for learning, and I find it uncomfortable to imagine my own children experiencing anything other than the messy classrooms of educational, social and interpersonal interactions that I did.

However, I do now think that we have to face up to the trade-offs that exist in the way we organise our classrooms. If we care about closing the attainment gap and we accept the relationship between SES and cognitive function, then surely our first port of call should be to create classroom environments and instructional programmes that prioritise the needs of those who are most constrained by their cognitive function? In many respects, we are still working out what this means for the classroom, but I’m pretty sure that being laissez-faire about what students can choose to pay attention to in class is likely to widen the attainment gap.

Graham Nuthall was not particularly optimistic about disrupting the cultural rituals of our classroom practice to improve what children are able to learn. He believed these rituals persist across generations because we learn about what it means to be a teacher through our own schooling as a child. We have deeply embedded values about the kinds of experiences we want our students to have in our classrooms. For him, the cultural values of teachers are the glue that maintains our schooling system as it is, with the consequence that it entrenches the attainment gaps we’ve always had.

Conclusion

The pupil premium, as a bundle of cash that sits outside general school funding with associated monitoring and reporting requirements, isn’t helping us close the attainment gap. We should just roll it into general school funding, preserving the steep social gradient in funding levels that we currently have. When we teach children from households that are educationally disengaged there is a lot we can do to help by way of pastoral and cultural support. This costs money and monitoring test scores isn’t the right way to check this provision is appropriate.

We shouldn’t ring fence funds for pupil premium students, not least because they may not be lowest income or most educationally disadvantaged students in the school. We should stop measuring or monitoring school attainment gaps because it is a largely statistically meaningless exercise that doesn’t help us identify what is and isn’t working in our school. In any case, ‘gaps’ matter little to students from poorer backgrounds; absolute levels of attainment do.

I understand the argument that marking ‘PP’ on a seating plan or generating a ‘PP’ report introduces a language and focus around helping the most disadvantaged in the school. I have argued that this language is of little value if it distorts optimal decision-making and takes the focus away from effective classroom practice. Instead, by focusing on disadvantage in the classroom – that is, cognitive functions that place students at an educational disadvantage – we have the opportunity to better understand how our choice of instructional methods maximises the chances of success for those most at risk of falling behind. I very much doubt it enables us to close the attainment gap, but I like to think it will help us achieve more success than we’ve had so far.

I am not unrealistic about how hard this is: our teachers have amongst the highest contact hours in the OECD and this has to change if they are to have the time to modify how they teach. But more importantly, we have to decide that changing classroom practice is something we want to do, even if it disrupts our long-held cultural ideals of what education should look like.

The pupil premium is not working (part II): Reporting requirements drive short-term, interventionist behaviour

On Saturday 8th September 2018 I gave a talk to researchED London about the pupil premium. It was too long for my 40-minute slot, and the written version is similarly far too long for one post. So I am posting my argument in three parts [pt I is here and pt III is here].

Most school expenditure sustains a standardised model of education where 30 children are placed in a room with a teacher (and a teacher assistant if you are lucky). Now, for the government to sustain its pupil premium strategy, it makes schools evidence the impact of their pupil premium spending on attainment. But it’s hard to build evidence for that impact if you’re just spending the cash sustaining a well-established, standardised model. (Unless… you segregate all the pupil premium children into one classroom first… though you really shouldn’t, and I have only come across one school so far that is mad enough to do that.)

Instead, in their efforts to close the gap between students sitting in the same classroom, schools ‘target’ pupil premium students with activities and interventions that sit outside the standard whole class activities of a school: tutoring, withdrawal from class with teaching assistants, breakfast clubs, extracurricular activities, and so on. Intervention-type activities suit this short-termist funding stream that is entirely dependent on whether pupil premium eligible students enroll, or not. The chart below shows that over half of the 2,500 teachers answering the Teacher Tapp survey app reported that targeted interventions were provided to pupil premium students, a group that I’ve argued do not have a well-defined set of social or educational needs.

10TT2

In the classroom too, pupil premium students frequently receive different treatment. 63% of teachers say they are required to monitor their progress more closely than other students; 18% say they mark their books first; two-thirds of secondary teachers are required to mark out the status of pupil premium students on their seating plans.

9TT1

You could argue that all this is, at worst, inefficient both in its choice of activities and targeting of pupils. But headteachers frequently explain to me the ethical dilemmas this raises in their own schools, where pupils in greater need are excluded from clubs or provision in a manner that can be impossible to explain to parents without identifying those who are disadvantaged.

History teacher, Tom Rogers, has written several posts explaining how the pupil premium has pushed ethical boundaries too far. Here he explains:

11TES1

In another post, he describes how it affects classroom teachers:

12TES2

At this stage I know there will be some school leaders and consultants thinking “Yes, but you don’t have to do any of these things. You can spend the money supporting interventions and high quality teaching for all those who need them”. In a sense they are right: the pupil premium hypothecation is only notional and nobody asks to see an audit trail of the expenditure. But if this is our best argument for sustaining the pupil premium as it is, then surely we should just roll it into the general schools funding formula with all the other money that disproportionately flows to schools serving disadvantaged communities?

In any case, it takes a brave headteacher and governing body to explain to Ofsted that they choose to spend their pupil premium funding on non-pupil premium students in need. After all, newspaper articles such as this by Louise Tickle in the Guardian constantly remind them that expenditure must raise the attainment of pupil premium children:

13Guardian1

Ofsted comment on pupil premium expenditure and attainment more often than not, even during short inspections. In a sample of 663 Ofsted reports we reviewed from the 2017/18 academic year, 51% mention the pupil premium and well over half of these assert that inspectors can see the monies are being spent effectively!

Where their comments are critical of pupil premium expenditure, they rarely make concrete recommendations that could be useful to anyone, except to the industry of consultants and conferences that help schools solve the riddle of how to spend the pupil premium. These are example quotes from inspection reports (with the one mentioning external review appearing regularly):

  • The school does not meet requirements on the publication of information about the pupil premium spending plan on its website
  • The leaders and managers do not focus sharply enough on evaluating the amount of progress in learning made by the various groups of pupils at the school, particularly the pupils eligible for the pupil premium …
  • An external review of the school’s use of the pupil premium funding should be undertaken in order to assess how this aspect of leadership and management may be improved

Governors are expected to take a central role in relation to monitoring this pot of money (one-third of Ofsted’s pupil premium comments mention governors). Not only must they be trained in how to monitor and evaluate their attainment gap, they should be capable of examining what interventions have been shown to work and be able to analyse pupil attainment data ‘forensically’ (according to an EEF employee quoted in this article).

What should money for disadvantaged pupils be spent on if we want to close the gap?

I have argued that the pupil premium is constructed in a way that encourages interventionist rather than whole class approaches to education improvement, and it does so for a group of students without a well specified set of needs.

Schools that serve more disadvantaged communities do need considerably more money to operate. Their students frequently have greater pastoral needs and they face higher costs of dealing with safeguarding, attendance and behaviour. Equally, we want these schools to provide rich cultural experiences that the students might not otherwise afford. And yet, many of these things we’d like schools to spend money on aren’t central to the question of how we should spend money to raise attainment (remember, the pupil premium is supposed to be used to raise attainment).

Beyond the obvious provision to help make home life matter less to education (e.g. attendance and homework support), we struggle to make highly evidenced and concrete recommendations, in part because ‘money’ has a poor track record in raising educational standards in general. The Education Endowment Foundation was established alongside the pupil premium with the expectation they would identify effective programmes or widgets that schools could then spend money on. Unfortunately, most trials have shown that programmes are no more effective than existing school practice, and in any case free school meal eligible children do not disproportionately benefit from them.

And if we turn to the bigger picture, there is a large literature on the relationship between money spent and pupil outcomes. This isn’t the place to review the literature, but studies (particularly UK ones) frequently show that money does not matter to pupil attainment as much as we think it should. I wish it did, for that would give us a policy lever to improve education.

Money changes the way we educate. It changes the way that education feels to those involved and it changes the diversity of experiences we can give students in school, but that is a different thing to saying it directly affects how students learn.

The curious question is why money and attainment are not more tightly linked.

I don’t think governments help themselves here when they ring-fence money or give it an expiry date which prevents schools making efficient expenditure decisions. And, as discussed earlier in relation to EEF trials, we simply do not have good evidence that it is possible to go and purchase off-the-shelf programmes that are demonstrably effective.

But equally, schools don’t always spend money in a way that increases test scores because they have other considerations, not least making the lives of their staff more manageable. We know from the IFS paper that the majority of the increase in cash over the Labour Government period (which disproportionately went to disadvantaged schools) was spent on expanding the team of teachers who rarely teach (the senior leadership team), teaching assistants, and general wages.

Equally, from a Teacher Tapp question asked last week, we know teachers in secondary schools would choose to spend money on more classroom teachers, presumably to reduce class sizes. Primary school teachers would elect to have more teaching assistants. Both smaller class sizes and teaching assistants are resources that make the lives of teachers more manageable, but evidence says they have little immediate impact on pupil attainment. They certainly do support the long-term health of the teaching profession, which I believe is the most important determinant of pupil attainment in the future (see my Teacher Gap book). But this money does not buy us better pupil attainment today.

15TT3

To be clear, as a parent whose own children are educated in one of the most poorly funded counties in England, I am gravely concerned about how the current funding crisis is damaging both the quality of the experiences they have and the well-being of their teachers. But equally, as a researcher in this field, I would not be able to give a school well-evidenced advice about how to use money to close the attainment gap. I think this is because improved classroom instruction isn’t something it is easy to buy. Is it possible to teach in a way that disproportionately benefits those in the classroom from disadvantaged backgrounds? This is the question that we will turn to in Part III.

What’s coming up…

Part III asks whether within-classroom inequalities can ever be closed

(Punchline for the nervous… No, I don’t think the pupil premium should be removed. I suggest it should be rolled into general school funding.)

The pupil premium is not working (part I): Do not measure attainment gaps

On Saturday 8th September 2018 I gave a talk to researchED London about the pupil premium. It was too long for my 40-minute slot, and the written version is similarly far too long for one post. So I am posting my argument in three parts [pt II is here and pt III is here].

Every education researcher I have met shares a desire to work out how we can support students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they navigate the education system. I wrote my PhD thesis about why school admissions help middle class families get ahead. No politician is crazy enough to do anything about that; but they have been brave enough to put their money where their mouth is, using cash to try to close the attainment gap. This series of blog posts explains why I think the pupil premium hasn’t worked and why it diverts the education system away from things that might work somewhat better. I suggest it is time to re-focus our energies on constructing classrooms that give the greatest chance of success to those most likely to fall behind.

Money, money, money…

We think about attaching money to free school meal students as a Coalition policy, but the decision to substantially increase the amount going to schools serving disadvantaged communities came during the earlier Labour Government. The charts below come from an IFS paper that shows how increases in funding were tilted towards more disadvantaged schools from 1999 onwards. The subsequent ‘pupil premium’ (currently £1,320 for primary and £935 for secondary pupils) really was just the icing on the cake.

1Funding

However, the icing on the cake turned out to have a slightly bitter taste, for it came with pretty onerous expenditure and reporting requirements:

  1. The money must be spent on pupil premium students, and not simply placed into the general expenditure bucket
  2. Schools must develop and publish a strategy for spending the money
  3. Governors and Ofsted must check that the strategy is sound and that the school tracks the progress of the pupil premium students to show they are closing the attainment gap

The pupil premium does not target our lowest income students

Using school free school meal eligibility as an element in a school funding formula is a perfectly fine idea, but translating this into a hypothecated grant attached to an actual child makes no sense. The first reason why is that free school meals eligibility does not identify the poorest children in our schools. This was well known by researchers at the time the pupil premium was introduced thanks to a paper by Hobbs and Vignoles that showed a large proportion of free school meal eligible children (between 50% and 75%) were not in the lowest income households (see chart below from their paper). One reason why is that the very act of receiving the means-tested benefits and tax credits that in turn entitle the child to free school meals raises their household income above the ‘working poor’.

7FSMpoverty

Poverty is a poor proxy for educational and social disadvantage

Even if free school meal eligibility perfectly captured our poorest children, it would still make little sense to direct resources to these children since poverty is a poor proxy for the thing that teachers and schools care about: the educational and social disadvantage of families. Children who come from households who are time-poor and haven’t themselves experienced success at school often do need far more support to succeed at school, not least because:

  • Their household financial and time investment in their child’s education is frequently lower
  • Their child’s engagement in school and motivation could be lower
  • The child’s cognitive function might lead them to struggle (of which more in part 3)

These are social, rather than income, characteristics of the family.

Pupil premium students do not have homogeneous needs

There are pupil premium students who experience difficulties with attendance and behaviour; there are pupil premium students who do not. There are non-pupil premium students who experience difficulties with attendance and behaviour; there are those who do not. Categorising students as a means of allocating resources in schools is very sensible, if done along educationally meaningful lines (e.g. the group who do not read at home with their parents; the group who cannot write fluently; the group who are frequently late to school). Categorising students as pupil premium or not is a bizarre way to make decisions about who gets access to scarce resources in schools.

Yes, there are mean average differences by pupil premium status in attendance, behaviour and attainment. However, the group means mask the extent to which pupil premium students are almost as different from each other than they are from the non-pupil premium group of students. The DfE chart below highlights this nicely.

8FSMdistribution

In his book, Factfulness, the great, late Hans Rosling implores us not to overuse this type of analysis of group mean averages to make inferences about the world. He explains that ‘gap stories’ are almost always a gross over-simplification. They encourage us to stereotype groups of people who are not as dissimilar to others as the mean average would have us believe.

Why do we like these ‘gap stories’? We like them because we humans like the pattern forming that group analysis facilitates, and having formed the gap story, we are then naturally drawn to thinking of pupil cases that conform to the stereotypes.

Your school’s gap depends on your non-PP demographic

I’ve explained how the pupil premium group in schools do not have a homogeneous background and set of needs. Students not eligible for the pupil premium are even more diverse.

When we ask schools to monitor and report their pupil premium attainment gap, the size of the gap is largely a function of the demographic make-up of the non-pupil premium students at the school. Non-pupil premium students include the children of bus drivers and bankers; it is harder to ‘close the gap’ if yours are the latter. Many schools that boast a ‘zero’ gap (as did one where I was once a governor) simply recruit all their pupils from one housing estate where all the residents are equally financial stretched and socially struggling, though some are not free school meal eligible.  Schools that serve truly diverse communities are always going to struggle on this kind of accountability metric.

Tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level

There are dozens of published attainment gap charts out there, all vaguely showing the same thing: the national attainment gap isn’t closing, or it isn’t closing that much. None of them are worth dwelling on too much since the difference between average FSM and non-FSM attainment is very sensitive to two things that are entirely unrelated to what students know:

  1. We regularly change the tests and other assessments that we bundle into attainment measures at age 5, 7, 11 and 16. This includes everything from excluding qualifications, changing coursework or teacher assessment mix, to rescaling the mapping of GCSE grades to numerical values. Generally speaking, changes that disproportionately benefit higher attaining students widen the gap.
  2. The group of students labelled as pupil premium at any point in time is affected by the economic cycle, by changes in benefit entitlements and by changes to the list of benefits that attract free school meals. For example, recessions tend to close the gap because they temporarily bring children onto free school meals who have parents more attached to the labour market.

It is also worth noting that FSM eligibility falls continuously from age 4 onwards as parents gradually choose (or are forced) to return to the labour market. This means comparisons of FSP, KS1, KS2 and KS4 gaps aren’t interesting.

Don’t mind your own school gap

Your school’s attainment gap, whether compared with other schools, compared with your own school over time, or compared across Key Stages, cannot tell you the things you might think it can, for all the reasons listed above.

Moreover, it isn’t possible for a school to conduct the impact analysis required by DfE and Ofsted to ‘prove’ that their pupil premium strategy is working for all the usual reasons. Sample sizes in schools are usually far too small to make any meaningful inferences about the impact of expenditure, and no school ever gets to see the counterfactual (what would have happened without the money).

What’s coming up…

Part II explains how reporting requirements drive short-term, interventionist behaviour

Part III asks whether within-classroom inequalities can ever be closed

(Punchline for the nervous… No, I don’t think the pupil premium should be removed. I suggest it should be rolled into general school funding.)