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“The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend”

Conservative Party Manifesto, 2017

With an expectation that 90 per cent of pupils will take the EBacc by 2025, whilst placing greater demands on elite universities and private schools to support the state sector, and ensuring all schools are fairly funded – with no school having its budget cut – the message from Theresa May couldn’t be clearer: we’re levelling the playing field; it’s time to deliver.

Running through this manifesto is a clear vision for English schooling. All pupils – regardless of geography, ethnicity or their parent’s wealth – should receive a broad, rigorous and well-funded education up until age 16. After this, they have the choice between taking a high-quality apprenticeship or undertaking further academic study, and going on to university. So whilst every child has different interests, strengths and ambitions, our level of expectations for them, and the quality of education they should receive, remains consistently high.

As a society, we have for too long tolerated a system which says that it is acceptable for a privileged child at a top private school in Berkshire to enjoy the rich diet of a traditional liberal education, whilst expecting much less for a poor child from Bradford or Burnley. Reforming primary school assessment will reduce teaching to the test and enable teachers to focus on teaching rich and broad content to their pupils. Furthermore, the aim to have 90 per cent of secondary school pupils taking the EBacc by 2025 will mean that we have the highest expectations for all of our young people.

With Brexit on the horizon, demanding that all our young people are literate, numerate, fluent in science, a humanity and a foreign language, should be the bare minimum we expect for the huge public investment we make in education. But more than this, the EBacc target commits us all to the principle that no matter what our young people decide to do after school, they will have the foundation of knowledge needed to go on and make the most of their talents and lead a fulfilling life. The creation of a curriculum fund to “encourage Britain’s leading cultural and scientific institutions, like the British Museum and others to help develop knowledge-rich materials for our schools” will raise standards, help teachers and introduce our children to some of this nation’s proudest institutions.

Of course, this will mean that a good number of schools will need to adjust their curriculum and staffing to ensure that they are meeting this target, but they have ample time to do so. Indeed, what is striking about this manifesto is the level stability it will provide. There will be no more tinkering with structures and the curriculum. (For all the noise that will be generated by the pledge to “lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools”, this does not impact on a headteacher’s ability to plan for the future, and should not be used as a smokescreen for failure). And this stability will be compounded with stability in school funding, with many schools receiving an increase in budgets – tackling years of unfairness – and not a single school seeing their budget cut, due to an injection of an additional £4 billion until 2022. So no more complaining about funding; let’s focus on what actually goes on inside the classroom.

To help classroom teachers – without whom none of this will ever be possible – there is a pledge to “provide greater support…in the preparation of lessons and marking” and to “bear down on unnecessary paperwork and the burden of Ofsted inspections”. Teachers go into the profession because they are passionate about their subject and want to change lives and pass their knowledge onto the next generation. Ill-thought out school initiatives, poor behaviour and preparing for Ofsted get in the way and ware teachers down. The Conservatives understand this, and will do everything they can to allow them to focus on enhancing their classroom practice.

So, in order to create “the world’s great meritocracy”, the message from the Conservative manifesto is clear: we need to do more for our young people. A Conservative government will offer stability, fairness and financial security, and a better deal for teachers. In turn, it’s time to deliver for every child in every corner of our nation.

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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.