Under what conditions do High Prior Attaining PP students achieve their target grades in GCSE English?

by Becky King, The Duston School

THE ISSUE: Professional autobiography – what motivates me as a teacher?

The Duston School has a history of High Prior Attaining students falling short of their target grade in English. Indeed, in the most recent Ofsted Inspection in October 2018 stated that ‘At Key Stage 4, pupils’ outcomes in English are not good enough’. In 2018, High Ability Pupil Premium (PP) students achieved a negative Progress 8 score in both English Language (-1.22) and English Literature (-0.76) and a key element of the School’s Improvement Plan is for the next cohort of Year 11 students to achieve a positive Progress 8 score in English. In recent years, the school has invested a huge amount of money in intervention programmes for these High Prior Attaining students, buying in help from companies like Elevate Education and PiXL and running intervention sessions before school, after school and even during the school holidays. Since the arrival of the new Head in 2017, intervention for Year 11 outside of the classroom does not begin until February in a bid to place more emphasis on first wave teaching.

The progress of the fourteen High Prior Attaining Pupil Premium students in English, alongside the rest of the students in 11YEn1 and 11XEn1 has formed the central point of this Teacher Action Research Project. The study examines the extent to which Meta-Cognition and Self-Regulation can help disadvantaged pupils to think about their own learning more explicitly. In the Education Endowment Foundation’s 2017 report The Attainment Gap, it is stated that ‘The Pupil Premium is a valuable focus for closing the attainment gap – but it is important that schools consider how they can best use all of their resources to improve the quality of teaching, as this will benefit all pupils, but particularly the most disadvantaged.’ This sentiment echoes the ethos of The Duston School – that teachers need to enable all students to reach their full potential, including those eligible for the PP.


Under what conditions do High Prior Attaining PP students achieve their target grades in GCSE English?


Taylor (1999) defines metacognition as “an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the agility to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation, and to do so efficiently and reliably” (p1). Metacognition is an essential skill for students in Year 11 English as they are expected to know which strategies to apply to a Literature question and use different ones when approaching each separate question of a GCSE Language paper.

My intervention centred on: providing exemplar responses to students using a visualiser on a regular basis. I would show them how to plan out a responses on the spot – developing a sense of a conceptualised argument and sequencing an argument before writing. After securing the agreement of the other top set teacher to participate in the study, I came up with three key aspects that we would both focus on:

  • Repeatedly questioning students on their knowledge of what characterises top level work. They need to be able to fully articulate what a top level response contains.
  • Frequently exposing students to top level written responses through teacher modelling using a visualiser.
  • Including key subject vocabulary in every lesson with explanation of definitions and demonstrating how to apply terms.

In the process of carrying out this project, both the other teacher and I realised that to ensure our data is robust, we really needed to have a control group of students who weren’t exposed to our intervention, however ethics prevented this. Another aspect to consider is that Year 11 results won’t be published until August 2019, so I would like to revisit this report and amend some sections when there is a clearer picture of the impact of my intervention. Something that I didn’t anticipate was that because the attendance of the HPA PP students was inconsistent, it was hard to sustain interventions with this sub group. Their absence lead to a lessening of motivation and poor levels of self-efficacy. Both my co-teacher and I have concluded that because reasons for disadvantage are so varied in PP students, it is difficult to compare individual students and cohorts; issues that hinder learning in my Year 11 group may not apply to the co-teacher’s group or the next cohort in September.


After each week of lessons with 11XEn/1, I reflected on the success of the activities that we had completed and compared my own thoughts to the work that the students had produced. As I was working with my own class, it was relatively easy for me to make judgements about effort and aspiration. I could distinguish between an activity being unsuccessful and an individual student being off-task or unwell etc. After several weeks of implementing the intervention, students were in a routine and we were able to identify that they needed particular help with the starts of essays which we then developed under timed conditions (see below).


It was clear that all students, disadvantaged or not, wanted to see what excellence looked like and had a genuine thirst for knowledge. The students were unfazed at the prospect of producing two to three pages of work but they felt anxious about giving ‘the right answer’ which stopped them writing. In the picture below, there is an example of the style of planning we completed together, alongside a model opening paragraph which students were then asked to develop.

The image above illustrates the end point of the intervention – where I was able to write complete essays in the lesson (on a PC) and students then deconstructed my responses the following lesson.

Having completed the intervention, one student wrote in their questionnaire ‘it helps to see a plan so that you know the direction your writing has to go in’. In this situation, it is clear that success breeds success and that establishing a culture of trust within a class is central to students making progress.

The table below shows the final progress predictions for my Year 11 group, made in June 2019. Their stating point in September 2017 showed all students as flagged orange or red, meaning that they were at least a grade away from their target grade (calculated using FFT20 data).

After completing the innovation, I am now using all three key elements in my daily practice. Having adopted ‘Big Questions’ as a school, this has encouraged me to think about ‘the why’ far more; I have since unpicked our KS3 curriculum and worked with TLR holders to design an academically robust programme of study that prepares students for a lifetime of studying English. Lessons are

now starting with recall questions and recapping key knowledge from the previous lesson before any new content is introduced. This particularly helps PP students as there is constant revision of core content, making it easier for them to catch up with work missed through absence.


This project has shown me that students value high quality first-wave teaching and that High Prior Attainment (HPA) PP students make most progress when they have a trusting relationship with their teacher. Curriculum is key, and students want to understand the rationale behind what they are learning – and the way they are learning it. Modelling responses, a heightened focus on relevant terminology and repeatedly asking students to verbally articulate what a top level response looks like over a period of months improves the progress of HPA PP students, and indeed the other students in that class.

Since completing the project, the Head at The Duston School has invested in visualisers for all staff and asked departments to produce vision statements, justifying their curriculum choices.


There is definitely scope to develop this investigation in the future and next year I will be turning my attention to vocabulary as this year’s study has shown me that the wider a student’s vocabulary the better they are at expressing ideas – both orally and written.

The Northamptonshire County Council’s website states that a child may be entitled to pupil premium funding if their parent receives one of the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • Income Based Job Seekers Allowance
  • Child Tax Credit Only (with income up to £16,190) with no element of Working Tax Credit
  • National Asylum Seekers Support
  • Guarantee Element of the State Pension Credit
  • Employment and Support Allowance (income related)
  • Universal Credit (income dependant

It’s frustrating that disadvantage is measured under such a wide umbrella and until teachers are provided with a more detailed information about the precise type of ‘disadvantage’ that students are living with, it will always be difficult to draw accurate conclusions about whether improvements in progress are a result of the teaching or just conditions at home improving.


Education Endowment Foundation (2017) The attainment gap. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Annual_Reports/EEF_Attainment_Gap_Report_2018.pdf.

Taylor, S. (1999). Better learning through better thinking: Developing students’ metacognitive abilities. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 30(1).

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