Closing the gap: when the main thing is not always teaching and learning

Over the past three years, one of my accountabilities has concerned accelerating the progress of disadvantaged students. We’ve learned a lot, and this is the data (I took up post in September 2013):

In a nutshell, our Pupil Premium students are making better progress and a greater proportion are attaining better grades. This is within a national picture where the attainment gap remains stubbornly static and the LA gap is increasing.

Of course, this is a complicated area and it is difficult to say which interventions and changes have really made the most difference. If you’d like to read our evaluations, visit our website.  What is clear, however is that the following have contributed (in no particular order):

1. A relentless focus on the quality of teaching and learning in individual classrooms.

Without a doubt, the biggest difference is made in classrooms. We trust teachers to identify students and support the core subjects with coaches. We don’t believe in withdrawing young people from classrooms, but in providing extra support alongside classroom teachers. This is coupled with before and after school coaching sessions and catch up. Key is the careful targeting of young people, and every department has an individual target to close the gap for every year. I provide data around this for each head of department and use it to start conversations.

In addition, the rather blunt tool of an appraisal target is used, particularly for the higher attaining students.  Our outcomes told us that staff expectations for this group of people were too low and we reinforced the fact that disadvantaged students are mixed ability learners.  This was supported by a thread of CPD that ran through all of our events, from 15 minute forums to INSET days and teacher learning communities.  In addition, research bursars explored the research linked to PP students in homework, feedback, metacognition, visual strategies and attendance, including parental engagement and reading.

We turst teachers and staff to be professionals and the Pupil Premium Referral form has been a great lever for classroom teachers to access funds:

This gives ownership to classrooms teachers and other staff, who can be more responsive. Of course, group interventions make up the bulk of our input. Here are some of the things requested.

The advantages of this system is that it automatically generates a case study, as well as making the member of staff accountable for their progress, we have to give access to the support.

2. Using data to target the resources where they are needed: attendance
Of course, there are some students who aren’t accessing our excellent teaching and learning and attendance remains one of the biggest barriers to learning. This year, we have halved the proportion of students who are persistently absent (below 90%) and we have closed the gap between pupil premium and other students in terms of the absence rate. This is slow progress as we are having to change the culture of families as well as staff:

  • Year group leaders meet with a targeted cohort of students every week to talk about attendance. This throws up all sorts of issues that we can then deal with. Students who meet targets and maintain an improvement trend are invited to breakfast one a half term to receive recognition from senior members of the team.  These conversations lead into bespoke interventions, home visits and further conversations. 
  • Parental meeting and drop in sessions run by our councillors that are held off site. This is slow going but we are gaining numbers and the word is getting around that we are looking after the students.
  • Breakfast club and bus passes – many of our PP students live out of catchment.
It’s really important to note that attendance and behaviour for learning are the elephants in the room: it isn’t just about sound classroom practice for some students.  They also need to develop the social and cultural awareness and skills in order to access education. I’ve often heard the argument that it is up to parents to furnish their offspring with this and for the middle classes and students with sound role models at home that’s great.  However, those who aren’t aware that they aren’t supporting their children (who they no doubt care deeply about) need support and training. From my own experience I learnt how to behave in social and professional situations from school and extra-curricular activities. Does that mean that my mother didn’t care? No. It just meant that she needed help.
3. Transition
It’s a real shame that the Government have scrapped the additional funding for summer schools. They have a really important impact –  our 2015 cohort enjoys 97% attendance – above both the whole school and PP averages. The two week summer school (with camping residential, London Trip and local activities) are rooted in introducing young people to our regular school routine: they carry out daily maths and reading as well as meet the key members of staff. Students feel more confident. Research and data shows that transition is where vulnerable students loose ground, so a lot of effort and time continually goes in to this area and we have secured funding to ensure that we can continue to offer this opportunity.

It’s clear to me that if we invest in our new intake and furnish them with high expectations and powerful habits, the gap will close significantly. Interventions into Year 10 and 11 just don’t work as well as taking a longer term view.  We can’t let Year 7 be part of the wasted years.

4. Overall aims but accountability

A key shift in focus has been from attainment to progress (personally I’ve never been driven by grades but by the journey from starting points).  Below is a summary of the PP strategy (all of this is in the pupil domain on our website).

This has been informed by research into our own school community rather than relying upon national trends.  Our research into Grit and character is showing some strong trends (look out for this is September) and it is clear that while teaching and learning is the key, children come to us with their own geographical rucksacks and we need to do something extra in order to remove barriers to learning. What is clear is that big conferences fail to give the most effective strategies and they seem to advocate spending big money on external providers rather than focus on shifting the culture of young people.

I wonder what successes your school has had in closing the gap, and the most effective strategies for doing so?

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