Children from families with low incomes leave school with fewer qualifications than those from wealthier families.

This is a stark view of education but one that, despite the efforts to address the poverty-related attainment gap, is the reality that many face, as a report in 2020 by the National Office of Statistics, entitled Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity, revealed recently.

It concludes: “Pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) made less progress between 11 and 16 years old than those not eligible for FSM, with national average Progress 8 scores of -0.53 and 0.06 respectively.”

This equates to a huge difference in exam outcomes. For example, 49.9 per cent of students achieved grade 5 in both English and maths in 2019. However, when we break this down by characteristics, we see a worrying divide.

  • 56.8 per cent of non-disadvantaged students achieved grade 5 in both English and maths
  • 30.4 per cent of disadvantaged students achieved grade 5 in both English and maths

The message is clear. If you come from a disadvantaged family, securing good exams grades is a lot harder.

And this is a problem that is only getting worse as more students are classified as disadvantaged and requiring FSM – with the proportion rising from 17.3 per cent in 2020 to 20.8 per cent this year.

Of course, not every school has a neat 80/20 split. The actual proportion of FSM in each school varies hugely, with some schools having almost every student on roll as FSM, whereas others won’t have any.

What is the reason behind this difference? The answer is often location.

If we use the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI, 2019) as an indicator of poverty, we can see the distribution of deprivation is concentrated in some areas more than others.

Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Knowsley, Kingston upon Hull and Manchester are the local authorities with the highest proportions of neighbourhoods among the most deprived in England. This correlates with the highest rates of FSM as per the most recent government data.

So students from disadvantaged backgrounds do worse in schools than their peers, and this problem is particularly pressing for schools with high numbers of FSM students on roll – and some areas are particularly badly affected.

How to fix the disadvantage gap in education?

So if we know this is the case, the pressing question is: what can we do to fix it?

There’s no easy answer, of course, but one intriguing idea was recently put forward by charity Teach First, which suggested that giving teachers in some of the most disadvantaged schools more PPA time would benefit the pupils in those settings.

Specifically, they said the government should provide funding for a pilot to reduce teachers’ timetabled hours and increase PPA to 20 per cent in the 1 per cent most disadvantaged schools.  

This would mean teachers would double their non-contact time with an extra five free periods over a fortnight, but why would this lighter timetable change the educational outcome of disadvantaged students?

Would increasing teachers' PPA time have an impact?

To answer this, it's first worth understanding exactly what Teach First is proposing it in its manifesto.

The manifesto sets out a series of key proposals: more money for Covid recovery, ringfenced support funding, increased pupil premium funding, and a pilot of 20 per cent PPA in the 1 per cent most deprived schools. The intention behind each proposal is to address the inequality in education.

The first three of these are perhaps not that ground-breaking, but it is the fourth that stands out. Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, says the rationale for this is drawn from the new Early Carer Framework (ECF) that priorities PPA time for new teachers.

“The ECF has set the precedent that ringfenced PPA time (10 per cent in Year 1, five per cent in Year 2) is important for professional development,” he says.

“We are simply arguing that this rationale should be extended across a teachers’ career, so all teachers can keep improving, as well as avoid getting burned out in the process.”

Furthermore, Teach First say giving more PPA to teachers working with some of the most disadvantaged students would help because it would give them more time to plan their lessons to suit the learners in that setting.

“Schools serving the most disadvantaged areas are staffed, on average, by younger and less experienced teachers,” says the report.

“Teachers in these schools face unique, context-specific challenges that make it more challenging for them to teach a typical timetable than if they were teaching the same number of lessons.”

As such, the report argues that if these teachers taught fewer lessons per week, they would have more time to spend on planning and professional development that would ensure lessons had been properly outlined for their pupils.

Furthermore, this would lead to improved teacher wellbeing and teacher retention – which itself would also have a benefit on educational outcomes by giving pupils more stability with teachers throughout their time in education.

Given these benefits, Teach First wants to run a pilot in the 1 per cent of the most disadvantaged schools in England to see what impact doubling PPA time could have.

It has costed this out at £30 million to run for a year as a trial.

At a time of numerous demands for education-related funding, this may be a few million to many for those in government.

A real-world example

However, the insights of those who have already tried this out could help to convince those in government that it could be an experiment worth trying – especially if ministers are serious about tackling the poverty-related attainment gap.

Ann Donaghy is headteacher of Noel-Baker Academy in Derby, and has implemented the very approach Teach First is calling for: giving staff 20 per cent of time for PPA.

She says the impact has been huge, helping to retain teachers at the school and entice more new teachers to apply and stay.

“The timetable restructure has allowed us to hire and retain high-quality teachers – because they know working [here] means they get more time to be brilliant teachers for their pupils.”

Before the trial, Donaghy says she was having to use supply teachers to plug the gaps that were caused by not having enough full-time teachers. However, once she could offer extra PPA, she was able to attract applicants for full-time permanent positions.

“In 2018 we were able to reduce our teachers timetables by investing in more full-time teachers rather than supply teachers,” she says.

“We used to spend hundreds of thousands on it – more permanent staff is much cheaper and better for the children in terms of stability and quality of provision.”

In turn, she says, this change led to “improved pupil outcomes, bettering our teaching staff recruitment and retention, and giving us time to invest in really well-thought-out extracurricular provisions”.

And this has all helped students in receipt of FSM: “It’s a win-win – you get better teaching and therefore better learning and outcomes for pupils. This includes destinations post-16 – our NEETs [students not in employment, education or training] have significantly dropped to well below the national and local average for all groups of pupils.”

What to do with the time

This is certainly a positive view and may make others think about doing something similar.

But, of course, you can’t just give teachers more time and leave it at that. Donaghy says it’s important staff are helped to ensure they can make the most of this extra time and that any additional training that might be required is offered, too.

“We’ve found a huge benefit in focusing on career development coaching, deliberate practice of classroom techniques and curriculum planning,” she says.

“We have a number of successful flexible working arrangements. It’s all about assessing staff’s individual needs and treating teachers as trusted professionals.”

Ruth Luzmore has worked in London inner-city primary schools for 12 years, most recently as a headteacher, and agrees more PPA time for staff would need oversight to ensure it was used properly.

“I wouldn't be letting them decide, as actually they get that already with the first 10 per cent,” she says.

“Instead I would have personalised CPD at this point, prioritising things like: team teaching, observations of class teachers, going out to other settings to see expertise and so on.”

What are the drawbacks?

All of this certainly adds up to a compelling case for the benefits of more PPA – but not everyone is convinced.

Richard Elam is a headteacher who spent 20 years working in primary schools across Yorkshire in a number of areas with high levels of deprivation.

He questions whether teaching disadvantaged children requires more PPA: “Surely the time required to plan and prepare a successful lesson is the same whether standing in front of the poorest 1 per cent of families or the wealthiest 1 per cent?” he says.

He also questions whether time away from your class is the best way to build the relationship needed to deliver good teaching.

“Actually teaching as much as possible is what allows improvement to happen,” he says. “You need the teacher to be in class establishing routines and norms with their pupils.”

Instead, Elam argues, what is needed is not less contact time between teachers and pupils but more funding in other services that are beyond schools' control that can help to increase time in education.

“We have woefully underfunded and excessively stretched social services, Camhs [child and adolescent mental health services], educational psychologists and therapists," he says.

"[What is needed is] effective and functioning support from outside the school."

All of these agencies Elam lists are ones that bridge the gap between home and school. They step in when children's physical or emotional needs aren’t being met. And when that bridge is taken away, this is when the disadvantage becomes more apparent.

And you can see the logic in this argument. If it is the environment that is causing the disadvantage, then tweaking the PPA of the teachers isn’t going to solve the problems that children in receipt of FSM are facing.

Another big issue that more PPA would not solve is parental engagement – an area that can have a big impact on educational outcomes, explains Dr Aleisha Clarke, head of what works, child mental health and wellbeing at the Early Intervention Foundation.

“Parents play a crucial role in supporting children’s learning,” says Clarke.

“Strong parental engagement with schools is consistently associated with better academic outcomes and so anything that teachers and schools can do to help parents to provide a stimulating space for their children to do homework or read or practise new skills has to be seen as part of a package of measures to close the gap.”

However, although it’s true increasing that PPA won’t improve the services available to struggling families or boost parental engagement itself, Donaghy says she has seen an improvement in the relationships between home and school after introducing the trial.

“When you have better teachers and fewer new faces, it improves relationships – it means everyone is known and known well, and parents who are struggling and need support are more likely to ask for help,” she says.

She says that because of this it makes it easier for parents to ask for help in other ways that can benefit their children's education too: “It removes the barriers around the embarrassment of asking for help and support – be that financial (food, uniform, access to ICT hardware, etc) or support accessing other agencies, mental health and wellbeing support, etc.

“The impact of increasing PPA goes beyond just the quality of what happens in the classroom.”

All of this offers a very positive view and one that Teach First would no doubt use as a shining example of what more PPA can achieve.

Costing it out

However, the reality is if Teach First’s request for more PPA time for teachers was met on a large scale, then more teachers would be needed to help cover that decrease in classroom time.

Quite a lot more actually: “[If applied to 20 per cent of schools] we estimate that 11,200 additional trainees would need to enter training between 2022-23 and 2025-26,” says Hobby. “This is an extra 2,800 per year.”

Even for the pilot alone of 1 per cent of most disadvantaged schools, it would mean an extra 560 teachers needed to cover that extra PPA, says Teach First.

This seems rather fanciful when you consider that in 2019 the government was 3,300 teachers short of its recruitment target.

In fact, for seven years teacher recruitment targets have not been met and even though the pandemic saw an increase in ITT applicants, experts say this is expected to be short-lived and not enough to fix the problem.

But would the promise of extra PPA time help with teacher recruitment – and retention, too? Possibly, says Jack Worth, the lead economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research and its school workforce lead, who is an expert in the recruitment and retention patterns in England.

In an NFER report entitled Teacher Labour Market in England, Worth notes the struggle that leaders are facing trying to recruit staff. However, the report suggests that, rather than recruiting new teachers to meet the increased demand, more effort should be put into reducing the loss of existing teachers.

Indeed, the first recommendation from the NFER is for the government to put things in place to improve the work-life balance for teachers: “Reducing teacher workload and supporting wellbeing should remain a priority for the government in the post-pandemic recovery phase,” it says.

If extra PPA can do that – and Donaghy’s experiences suggests it can – it adds more weight to the case for the government to fund a trial and see what happens on a larger scale.

An idea worth investigating

Whether that happens remains to be seen – not least because it would cost £30 million and there are plenty of other competing demands for educational funding right now.

However, overall it’s clear that the idea of increasing PPA time is one that offers some intriguing insights and should not be dismissed out of hand as impractical or too costly.

It may not be immediately practical for all and some may disagree with the supposed benefits, but for those that have tried it, the positives are notable and worth due consideration.

Perhaps more fundamentally, if we are to truly tackle the poverty-related attainment gap that exists for the most disadvantaged pupils, we cannot keep relying on the same old methods that have led us to this situation in the first place.

After all, if we change nothing, nothing changes.