Last reviewed 13 February 2012

The Pupil Premium has perhaps softened the blow of financial cuts for some schools. As the pressure on accountability for its spending increases, Suzanne O’Connell looks at the guidance available.


Amidst all the gloomy budget news it will have come as something of a relief that schools can at least expect to receive more Pupil Premium in the next financial year. The Pupil Premium is to rise from £488 to £600 per pupil in 2012 and will apply to more children. Not only will those currently on free school meals (FSM) be eligible but also any child that has been registered for FSM in the past six years.

From September 2012, schools will be required to publish online information about how the money has been spent. It is unclear at this point what information, what level of detail will be required and whether schools can be deemed to be spending it inappropriately.

A toolkit of strategies

In a bid to make sure that they do spend the money appropriately, the document, Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning has been produced by the Sutton Trust. It provides a summary of the strategies schools use to improve learning and rates them according to their cost and level of effectiveness. With online accountability looming and the Government’s obsession with proving what works, it is wise to look at your spending decisions and how it matches with the toolkit’s findings.

The Toolkit of Strategies points out that there is no clear evidence of the link between additional spending and learning. However, there are “some areas which offer a better bet than others”. The document is keen to distance itself from recommending any particular scheme and exhorts schools to make their own choices with the understanding that they must then evaluate themselves the benefits of any strategies they choose.

A table of results

The toolkit collects together the available evidence for 21 approaches to raising attainment and sets them against each other in relation to the level of cost involved and the evidence of effectiveness there is. It compares:

  • after-school programmes

  • ability grouping

  • assessment for learning

  • arts participation

  • block scheduling of lessons

  • early intervention during pre-school and nursery

  • effective feedback

  • homework

  • individualised instruction

  • ICT

  • teachers paying attention to learning styles

  • making thinking about learning explicit

  • one-to-one tutoring

  • parental involvement

  • peer tutoring

  • performance pay

  • reducing class sizes

  • school uniforms

  • sports participation

  • summer schools

  • teaching assistants.

Each approach is given its own cost symbol, with very low cost described as being about £2000 per year per class of 30 pupils and very high cost over £30,000 per year per class of 30 pupils.

The cost is weighed against the impact that each approach is considered to have according to the current evidence available. This impact is generally measured using test outcomes in English, literacy, maths or science. The strategies are ordered according to the potential gain for the student. This is defined as “Maximum appropriate advantage over the course of a school year that an ‘average’ student might expect if this strategy was adopted”.

The three approaches that would appear to come out top as having either very high or high impact against low cost are:

  • effective feedback

  • meta-cognition and self-regulation strategies

  • peer tutoring/peer assisted learning.

Effective feedback

This approach comes out as making the greatest difference for the least cost. The research suggests that, at its best, it:

  • is challenging

  • is meaningful and used sparingly

  • emphasises what is right rather than what is wrong

  • is encouraging and does not threaten self-esteem

  • is specific

  • compares what they have done right now in comparison to what they did wrong before.

Meta-cognition and self-regulation strategies

These approaches make thinking about learning more explicit. For example, by teaching pupils the strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning. They are usually more effective in small groups where learners can discuss their thinking and with older pupils.

Peer tutoring/peer-assisted learning

There are a number of programmes referred to here including:

  • cross-age tutoring

  • peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS)

  • reciprocal peer tutoring.

Each of these approaches has the learner taking some responsibility for teaching as a shared characteristic.

Some surprises

There are some surprises. The traditional favourites of increasing staffing and providing teaching assistants do not come out well in this toolkit. Reducing class size is identified as only leading to a three-month gain and at very high cost. Teaching assistants are logged as having very low to no impact for high cost. Many schools choose to invest their money in staff. Where they have, they will need to be able to justify the effectiveness of this through the performance of pupils with FSM.

Ability grouping, often the centre of debate in a school, is identified as having very low, or even negative, impact.

Does it help?

The toolkit provides some interesting information in a clearly accessible form. However, schools’ own contexts and histories can also make a tremendous difference to the impact that different approaches have, as can the commitment of senior leadership to them. Schools will still need to apply their own judgment as to what works or might work for them but will be well-advised to collect evidence to back their decisions.

The future

Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium by Higgins, Kokotsaki and Coe (May 2011), Durham University in conjunction with the Sutton Trust is available from: