Can we afford it?


Michael Gove’s attacks on the  last Governments education policy were many and varied. But one common thread ran through them. The  last Government had failed the most disadvantaged pupils, whose performance, qualifications and  life opportunities had failed to improve, despite all the significant  new investment. If anything the gap between top performers and those at the bottom has increased.  A pupil who has been entitled to Free School Meals is less than half as likely to go on to study at university as their peers. In the past year for which  there is data, out of a cohort of 600,000 pupils, 80,000 pupils were eligible for free school meals. And of those, just 45 made it to Oxbridge.  The Coalition Government has stated that one of its key aims is to improve social mobility.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, has said “ Education is the key to social mobility and the Government’s key objective is to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds.”   Reforms to increase school autonomy are intended to improve the overall performance of schools, and the educational opportunities for less privileged pupils in particular, reducing this stark attainment gap that still persists between poorer pupils and those from better-off backgrounds. This is all about improving equity in the system and schools are seen as  the engines to improve social mobility.

There are four  main policy areas that impact on equity. School admissions-ensuring that disadvantaged pupils can get access to good schools; the use of a pupil premium-to   provide financial incentives for good schools to admit disadvantaged pupils ;  the schools accountability regime- whether  through Ofsted or funding agreements for Academies ensuring the disadvantaged are supported  ; and the role of Local Authorities- councils have a wide range of statutory duties to protect the welfare of all children in their area, including a duty to promote ‘‘the fulfilment by every child concerned of his educational potential”.

The allocation to schools of a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils is intended to create a strong incentive for them to enrol and improve the relative and absolute outcomes of children who may lack the home support of their more privileged peers. There is also evidence that the most disadvantaged pupils receive the worst teaching. But the key to the Premiums success will also be how the premium is actually spent by schools. There has  been much debate over how this will work and  what amounts will be involved and the Government is currently running a consultation on the Premium. But we know that to make a difference and incentivise schools to take on disadvantaged pupils, many of whom will present a challenge to the schools concerned, the Premium will have to be significant, and the Government has said that the Premium will be in addition to the current education Budget. The Sutton Trust agrees that  to have an impact, the pupil premium needs to be significant, of the order of 3,000 pounds per pupil – ie 50% more than average funding per pupil. The premium should be allocated, it believes,  in relation to all pupils who have at some point been eligible for Free School Meals. Certainly on the face of it this makes sense, but take a  look at the  potential sums involved across the system  and the fact that free Schools Meal measurement is a very blunt instrument indeed   as a measure of deprivation and it makes less sense. Policy Exchange, the centre right think tank close to Tory thinking on most issues,  suggested a pupil premium worth around £3,000 per student for the most deprived communities. (The Lib Dems have come up with a similar figure). It would cost £4.6 billion to implement. This money could come, it suggested, from the existing education budget by rolling central grants (like the School Standards Grant) into one revenue payment and scrapping wasteful programmes like the Education Maintenance Allowance and the National Challenge. This premium Policy Exchange recommended should be allocated using “geodemographic” analysis of postcodes as this takes into account cultural as well as financial deprivation.

The Sutton Trust also suggests that with others it  should commission a project to develop a tool-kit for schools providing clear, succinct and accessible advice on how the premium might be best spent to improve the outcomes for less privileged pupils. So it would mine evidence on  the most cost-effective strategies for improving outcomes, but also first hand knowledge of good practice from schools that have successfully narrowed attainment gaps. It also suggests that  Academies and free schools should declare how they intend to deploy the extra resources from the premium to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged children in their funding agreements and envisages a role  too for Local Authorities in monitoring schools activities related to disadvantaged pupils . But this  would seem to increase bureaucracy  and also  reduce  the autonomy of Academies  giving Local authorities an excuse  to interfere ,so may not be politically feasible.  But its good that the Trust is at least  getting us to think  in detail about the options.

The Institute for Fiscal studies  report ‘The pupil premium: assessing the options’ (March 2010) also raised  important questions over the Premium  and the options related to funding   while challenging  a number of assumptions. The report stated ‘The current system of school funding in England does effectively already provide extra funding for schools with more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the system is complex and rather slow to respond to year-on-year changes in a school’s intake, with a large amount of funding apparently dependent on historical rather than current deprivation.’ And  the report raised the key question -will the anticipated gains from implementing a pupil premium – such as greater levels of funding for deprived schools, a reduction in the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils, as well as greater simplicity and transparency – outweigh the potential costs which the IFS report suggests are-a loss of local discretion and significant levels of cuts to per-pupil funding across some schools. And this is an important point. If some schools get additional funds others will probably lose out.

The IFS found that there is some evidence that extra resources for disadvantaged pupils would reduce the attainment gap to a modest degree, although this will depend on how those resources are used by schools. It also found that schools are unlikely to actively recruit more disadvantaged pupils as a result of the pupil premium. It may also lead to a small reduction in covert selection by schools, but is unlikely to significantly reduce social segregation between schools.  New schools it found might be established in disadvantaged areas, but without allowing schools to make profits it concluded it is unlikely that the UK would see the same level of expansion that other countries have seen. Schools are not of course being allowed to turn a profit which many believe is acting as a significant  drag anchor on the  free schools policy.

Looking abroad, American researchers at the University of California (Equalizing Opportunity for Racial and Socio Economic Groups in the US through Educational Finance Reform 2005) used  estimates of   the effect of spending on the attainment of black children to conclude  that nine times as much needed to be spent on black children to get their attainment up to the national average. Closing ethnic gaps and gaps in attainment by socio-economic status  may not of course  be directly comparable, but if the cost for getting the attainment of poor children up to the national average was just five times the current spending per pupil, the pupil premium would need to be set at err… over £25,000.

So one wonders whether £3,000 will be enough to make a difference. And indeed can we   even actually afford  a Premium of that order, or are there more cost effective ways of  supporting the most disadvantaged and improving equity in the system. Food for thought.

Consultation on School Funding 2011-12: Introducing a Pupil Premium; Launch Date: Monday 26 July 2010; Closing Date: Monday 18 October 2010



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s