The Pupil Premium is not the issue in improving our schools

One of the Coalition’s headline educational initiatives has been the introduction of the Pupil Premium, additional funding to schools for each ‘deprived’ child (the Department for Education’s terminology).

This year the premium will amount to £430 per pupil, identified as one eligible for Free School Meals (itself an entitlement based on eligibility for various benefits and/or parental earnings of less than £16k per annum). This will cover around 15% of all pupils in maintained schools. The total cost will be £625 million this year, but it is intended to widen eligibility and thus increase spending to £2.5 billion per annum by 2014-15.

The reasoning behind this is that entitlement to free school meals is a proxy for low income households, and children from such households achieve poor educational outcomes. Only 75% of the poorest children achieve the expected level on leaving primary school, compared with 97% of the children from the richest households. The corresponding figures for the achievement of 5 good GCSEs (including English and Maths) are 20% and 75%.

The pupil premium is a response to the lack of a robust relationship between school resources and pupil performance. There are huge differences in funding per pupil. The Schools White Paper looked at 72 secondary schools outside London where funding (based on historical models, access to central grants, and local authority policies) varied between just below £4k and well over £5.5k. Such variations do not seem to be reflected in performance. So the pupil premium is seen as a means of targeting funding more closely to apparent need. The DfE argues that the premium will improve outcomes for deprived children by three means: (1) providing headteachers with 'the money they need to provide an excellent and individually tailored education for these children' (2) making it 'more likely that good schools will want to attract less affluent children' (3) making it 'more attractive to open Free Schools in disadvantaged areas'.

I hope so too, but I fear that this is wishful thinking.

On the first point, schools are being left free to spend the premium as they wish. As in many cases extra funding may be offset by removal of other forms of funding as a result of the CSR, some headteachers may use the bulk of the premium cash to shore up their budgets, with existing support programmes being rebadged to justify this to outside scrutiny. In any case, it is difficult to see what even committed headteachers should do: the supposed support needs of individuals from very different backgrounds and cultures will differ. And there is no magic bullet to improve the behaviour and attitude of disaffected pupils, who account for a significant proportion of those who do badly at school. The government says it will disseminate ‘good practice’, but such exercises have a poor track record.

The idea that existing successful schools will go out of their way to recruit poorer students as a result of the premium is naïve: why should they? The money involved is relatively small and the potential for disruption and poorer league table performance from significantly altering school intake is considerable.

As for the idea that Free Schools will be looking to recruit disadvantaged students in large numbers, this seems to ignore the evidence from those applications which are coming forward. Interestingly the Institute for Fiscal Studies (http://www.ifs.org.uk/comms/comm113.pdf) thinks this would be more likely if the government were willing to allow for-profit schools to become Free Schools. No prospect of this at the moment, alas.

So we look only too likely to be spending a lot of money on yet another round of educational gesture politics. We are doing nothing to boost parental choice and influence over school policy, for instance via voucher-style mechanisms; nothing to tackle the role of unions in preventing proper management of the quality of teaching in some areas;  little to challenge the culture of permissiveness towards poor pupil and parent behaviour ( TV’s Waterloo Road is only a slight exaggeration); not enough to prevent underachieving pupils being shunted into allegedly vocational programmes which employers do not value.

No doubt this is anathema to many schoolteachers, but extra money is really not the issue.

I am currently working as a supply teacher and go to a lot of schools in London that might be considered as having a difficult intake and I can definitely say that more money is not the answer to improving schools. More money will not change the attitude of pupils who have got into the habit of treating school like a social club. It is simply a question of discipline and discipline comes from good management. Some of the new Academies I go to are housed in great new buildings and have very good resources yet inside they are chaotic, some completely chaotic. Some are simply coasting along. A lot of the kids in these schools grow up knowing no boundaries at home and in a lot of cases get used to knowing no boundaries in school. These great resources and buildings, which have cost a lot and have contributed to the budget deficit, are not being fully utilised because the management in these schools is simply not good enough. There is a tendency to always think that it is because of lack of resources that pupils do badly when in fact they do badly because of the low quality of management and teaching . A good headteacher can turn out a great school with a modest building and resources. A good teacher can teach great lessons with very modest resources. If free schools are allowed to be run by for profit organisations it would make a huge difference to a whole generation of pupils. Discipline would improve hugely because of better management as a result of the competition that would come from parents having greater choice. It really is a shame that the Conservative party is not a little more bold. Very likely some parents would also be willing to pay for their child's education, even more so if there will be tax breaks in place. When I asked a Y9 pupil I taught recently in an Academy why she wasn't doing the work set she replied that here was no point working because she never learns anything in school and that as a result her parents pay for her to have a tutor. An indication that a lot of parents out there would be prepared to pay a little for their child's education if they knew they would get a well managed school where disruption would not be tolerated.

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