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Looking beyond attainment: insights from The Key's pupil premium conference

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As a researcher in the Curriculum and Learning area of our school leader website, I spend a lot of my time immersed in how schools can use the pupil premium to improve the quality of the teaching and learning.

At our recent pupil premium event in Manchester there was plenty of practical advice on this subject. However, several school leaders I spoke to voiced a particular concern.

It's all very well, they said, for Ofsted to inspect the use of the pupil premium in closing the academic attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. But for many schools and their pupils, the priority is pastoral care.

As one headteacher from the north east said, "We can't close the gap if the children aren't in a place where they're ready to learn."

I heard about everyday difficulties from children coping with recent family breakdown to pupils arriving in school hungry and unable to concentrate.

Attendees expressed a concern that Ofsted only smiles on using the pupil premium for pastoral support if the school's attainment gap has already narrowed, rather than seeing this pastoral spending as a pathway to closing the  gap.

In his conference presentation, Daniel Sobel, of Inclusion Expert, highlighted that a personalised approach to raising attainment means addressing each individual pupil's needs. These may be to do with the practicalities of getting to school, or a by-product of special educational needs, or anything in between.

He told of schools which looked at pupils in a holistic way, working closely with  children and their families to get at the root cause of low attainment. This may involve specific and imaginative solutions, rather than standard  interventions for pre-determined groups.

Schools that excel approach the challenge of closing the gap child-by-child. They recognise the diversity of pupil premium-eligible children, and identify each child's individual needs. Leaders in these schools fear that Ofsted is too single-minded in its search for uniform attainment.

David Driscoll, a lead inspector and one of The Key's associate experts, also spoke about gains that are hard to quantify. The gaps between pupils eligible for free school meals and their peers are not in attainment alone. When it comes to showing progress to Ofsted, he suggested using attendance records, behaviour logs, and case studies to demonstrate where pastoral support is helping pupils to close gaps in their learning.

One pupil premium co-ordinator for a primary school in the west Midlands expressed a hopeful vision of the future: as research into effective teaching becomes more widespread and the quality of teaching rises for all pupils, schools will have more freedom to address the pastoral challenges faced by their pupils.

For me,  Manchester's event showed what makes the effective use of pupil premium funding so challenging and so important. It requires excellence in teaching, financial management, pastoral care, and enormous determination.

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