The pupil premium is not having the impact needed to give poor kids the best possible start in life

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The scale of social inequality in Britain impedes social mobility because the poorest in society are so disadvantaged from the outset, whilst the richest are so advantaged. Social inequality is therefore problematic for the current government’s stated vision of a ‘One Nation’ Britain where opportunities “are not dependent on the family you were born into, the place where you live or the school you attend” (The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015).

One policy that was specifically designed and implemented in order to reduce the disadvantage faced by those pupils from lower socio-economic groups was the pupil premium. The Coalition Government introduced the pupil premium in April 2011 with a clear goal of reducing the attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their wealthier peers. The policy’s introduction was widely supported by the education community – a rarity in policy terms. The pupil premium involves giving schools a grant of £1,320 (primary) and £935 (secondary) for all children eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years and now covers 27% of the school population. Schools are free to spend the pupil premium as they see fit but are accountable for how they use the additional funding to support pupils.

Whilst total spending on schools is no panacea, research of the relationship between pupil expenditure and attainment supporting the policy is clear (e.g. Levacic et al. 2005; Holmlund, McNally and Viarengo 2009 and 2010). Indeed, the importance of additional funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was echoed by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in 2014:

“I know that some critics will argue my expectations are too high. They will point to the financial advantages many of the top private schools enjoy. And money does matter. Which is why we have protected schools spending; indeed, invested more in the poorest children through the pupil premium.”

So what impact is the policy having?

Primary level

On first inspections, the introduction of the pupil premium correlates with a rise in attainment for pupils eligible for FSM. There has been a continual improvement in the four academic years since 2011, with a growth in the percentage of pupils eligible for FSM achieving a Level 4 or better in reading, writing and mathematics increasing from 59% to 66%. However, there has been a simultaneous increase in attainment for pupils not-eligible for FSM from 74% to 80% in the same period. As such, the total gap in attainment at KS4 remained at 14% in 2015, the same as in 2014 and just 1% improved from 2013 and 2012.

Secondary level

Similar to KS2, the pupil premium does not appear to have made a significant impact to the attainment of pupils on free school meals at KS4. In 2014, just 33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved five good GCSEs (A*-C) including English and Maths compared to the national average of 60.5%. As with KS2, whilst it is important to note that overall attainment for pupils on FSM has increased substantially over the past decade, so too have the attainment levels for all other pupils, meaning that the gap has remained largely unchanged (though Dr Rebecca Allen of the IoE argues that current progress by pupils eligible for FSM might be better than previously thought as the 5 A*-C figures do not provide an accurate barometer for progress as the measure ignores many improvements within the A*-C boundary).

Here are some of the current issues that appear to be hampering the pupil premium policy in reducing the attainment gap:

  • Comparable outcomes – The current Ofqual policy  of ‘comparable outcomes’, designed to “align standards between exam boards in each subject and over time” means that that the distribution of grades – how many pupils achieve each grade – might not change dramatically from one year to the next. Whilst this policy is understandable in terms of ‘maintaining standards’ it is clear that for the gap in attainment to narrow then disadvantaged pupils not only have to achieve higher grades than they did in the past, but also that an equivalent proportion of non-eligible pupils simultaneously need to achieve lower grades than they did in the past.
  • Regional disparities – Attainment at KS2 for pupils eligible for free school meals was highest in London (69%) and lowest in the East of England (54%) in 2013. At KS4, schools based in predominantly rural and coastal areas – also predominantly white working class areas – have achieved disappointing results for their pupils, with just one in four eligible pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-C (including English and Maths) in 2013, compared to the national average of 33.5%.
  • FSM eligibility requirements – A significant proportion of economically disadvantaged children are not registered for FSM. A government report published in 2012 found that around 14% of the 1.4 million children aged 4-15 in England entitled to receive FSM were not claiming them. This means that they do not attract the pupil premium funding they deserve. There are also concerns that the current mechanism used to allocate the pupil premium, free school meals (FSM), creates steep eligibility cut-off points.
  • Use of fundingWhilst there has been a growing willingness by senior leaders to use research in deciding which approaches to use in improving pupil learning, over a third of senior leaders claim to not base their actions on proven methods. This is perplexing when an evidence-based toolkit of effective interventions is provided by the Sutton Trust and the EEF.  This leads to a risk that schools are able to waste money on ineffective activities for many years without effective challenge. Even more concerning is the notion that a significant number of schools use the pupil premium to fund gaps left by reductions in the schools budget caused by national austerity measures.
  • Level of funding attributed to the pupil premiumAn average sized secondary school with average numbers of pupils eligible for FSM receive an additional level of funding in the region of £200,000. However, there are concerns that the additional funding from the pupil premium is insufficient in order to effectively ‘close the gap’. Indeed, the OECD observes that the premium is relatively low in international standards
  • Overall school performance – There is a clear correlation between overall school performance, and the level of progress for pupils eligible for the pupil premium. As such, overall school performance – or lack of performance – is a major hindrance for the pupil premium policy to be effective.We need schools with strong leadership and governance that use interventions designed to have a long-lasting impact and not just to boost short-term achievement.
  • Wider social issues – Whilst better schools are vital – and schools such as KSA show that social background need not determine a child’s success –  policies directed at strengthening families and communities are also needed in attempts to equalise educational opportunities; policymakers cannot rely solely on interventions funded by the pupil premium to deliver the sheer scale of improvements that are required to break the link between poverty and educational attainment.

To summarise, whilst teachers, academics, politicians and Ofsted all appear to support the policy, it is clear that despite the best of intentions, this policy is not having the desired impact of reducing inequality in attainment. Yes, pupils eligible for FSM are achieving better results at KS2 and KS4, but so are non-eligible pupils. Whilst this might be praise for the sector as a whole, progress to date must be seen as a failure for social mobility campaigners. At best, research has shown that targeted interventions used effectively could close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils by a half, though even this is not enough to redress the fundamental inequality that exists. The challenge for policy makers is to maintain a relentless focus on continual reform of our schools and wider reforms of social policy. Without this, England’s education system appears destined to remain deeply unequal.

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