The Pupil Premium

Government and Ofsted  know that how the Pupil Premium is spent by schools really does matter


Total pupil premium funding will rise from £1.25 billion in 2012-13 to £1.875 billion in 2013-14. This will enable the level of funding for the deprivation and looked after child premium to increase to £900 per pupil and the service child premium to increase to  £300 per pupil.

Ministers see the Pupil Premium as the means to improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils, to address the long tale of underachievement and to close the achievement gap. The achievement gap is the difference in GCSE achievement between the average for pupils who are eligible for free school meals and the average for those who are not.

Research from the Sutton Trust  suggests that given  that Pupil Premium funding is not  ring-fenced (and in a challenging budgetary climate for schools), in many schools the money is being  used to fill budget deficits in other areas rather than being spent directly on the children that  generated the funding in the first place.  Self -evidently this is worrying. An Ofsted report in 2012  also found that only 10% of school leaders said that the Premium had changed the way they worked. And only half of schools said that it was having any positive effect on pupil achievement. Indeed, many schools were not even disaggregating the Pupil Premium from their main budget and were using it to enhance existing provision, rather than doing anything new with this extra funding. Ministers have been loth to intervene because they champion school autonomy.

Schools do now have to publish online information about the amount of pupil premium money the school receives and how it is being spent, as well as its impact. David Laws ,the schools minister, in a speech this month ,also  made in very clear that the government will keep an eagle eye  on   how individual schools, and  ,indeed ,chains of schools, are using the pupil premium to help improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and to narrow the achievement gap. Most recently Laws said (at the ASCL conference) that schools  must focus “relentlessly” on closing the achievement gap. Indeed  he ratcheted up the pressure by  announcing that  schools in England will no longer be rated as “outstanding” by inspectors if they fail to close the attainment gap between poor and affluent children. And Schools must use interventions that are known to  work.

This is a sensitive area. When Michael Gove  was  in opposition he relentlessly attacked the then  Labour government  for  failing to improve the lot of  pupils on Free School Meals pointing out that , if anything, their performance, despite significant levels of   new investment, had declined and  the attainment gap had increased.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is at one with the government in paying greater attention to the premiums use. Inspector’s judgments on schools’ leadership will consider the use of both the premium and other resources to overcome barriers to achievement for their pupils. In his annual report published in November, Sir Michael committed Ofsted to paying particular attention to attainment gaps affecting disadvantaged pupils in schools where they form a minority of less than 20% of all pupils

But not everyone believes that the funds available under the Pupil Premium  are sufficient for their purpose.  Some critics suggest   that the sums allocated for the Premium do not reflect the estimated costs necessary to equalise disadvantaged pupils’ educational needs, with those of their peers (Sibieta, IFS  2009). The OECD (2010) observes that the premium is ‘relatively low in an international perspective and it is not clear that it will cover the extra costs of admitting disadvantaged students. As the OECD notes, this risk of insufficient funding is exacerbated by the counter-incentive of high stakes accountability measures in the UK context.

What does that mean?

In short, League tables and other performance indicators, along with the recently announced rising floor targets, (see David Laws speech) mean that there are very strong potential consequences for schools whose exam achievement dips. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and other vulnerable groups may then  be viewed   by schools not as a source of much needed extra funding but ,instead ,as a risk. Hence  disincentives (driven by accountability measures) may in practice  outweigh the pupil premium incentive in admitting such pupils.   Indeed, an OECD working paper on reforming education in England (Braconier, 2012,) warns  that if the “perceived deprivation funding is lower that schools’ perceived costs, they may engage in  ‘cream skimming’, trying to dissuade disadvantaged students and recruit more able students.” This is why some are warning that schools admissions policies, and in particular academies admissions (given their autonomy), should be more carefully monitored.  The Government is seeking to improve transparency by publishing data on the progress of individual schools in closing gaps in attainment for FSM pupils; a move welcomed, incidentally, by Braconier (2012).

We know that, historically, there have been some perverse incentives within the accountability framework, particularly league tables. So the government’s efforts to reframe school league tables to mitigate perverse incentives, evident in  the current system, is  welcomed by many (Laws  recent speech was well received). But it remains to be seen what effect this may have on narrowing the achievement gap.

One thing is absolutely clear, though- schools will be held to account for how they use the Pupil Premium and their grade from Ofsted will depend on how much they have managed to close the achievement gap.  Empirical evidence about what works is available, and should be used.And there are a number of interventions from which to choose.Rumour has it that technology companies are making big  pitches to schools  seeking to persuade them  that they have what it takes to make a real difference to outcomes  . But experts  urge caution. Evidence is  mixed. Remember use of technology should be driven by learning and teaching goals rather than a specific technology: technology is not an end in itself. And don’t take, at face value, what the salesmen tell you. See past the bells and whistles of a new piece of tech hardware or software  and work  out exactly what it does to help disadvantaged pupils. And ,crucially, seek independent,  ‘disinterested’  sources of advice and evidence.

‘Caveat emptor’ ,as Michael Gove might say.


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