The Pupil Premium (PP) is great politics. As a way of increasing funding for schools with more pupils from poorer backgrounds, with all the incentives that implies, is has laudable political features. It contrasts us well as ‘pro-poor’ relative to the Conservatives. It is a kind of remedy for the ‘student fees’ debacle. And it is simple – easy to understand and to implement.
It is worth having a closer look at its features and context. Are there any broader lessons for the Lib Dems?
First, what is it? In effect PP is an additional dimension to the way that central government allocates funds for schools. County Council officials explained to me recently that now, 100% of school funds, in practice, come from central government – with detailed conditions attached on how money is spent and on success criteria (targets). The PP is now an additional factor in these complex arrangements.
Given that we are as a party opposed to such illiberal centralization and command systems (ie officials in Whitehall deciding in some detail the budgets and success criteria of each school, Soviet style) it means that PP is a good policy, on the assumption that it is not possible to reform this bizarrely centralized system. (How many countries in the OECD have central government ministries deciding the budget and policies of pretty much every state school in the country?)
National civil servants instinctively get fidgety with simple policies that are simple to implement. Civil servants cannot resist the temptation to ‘refine’ policy features – eg that receipt of free school meals should be the only criterion for determining who is ‘poor’. The same goes with the assumption that such poverty implies lower attainment, and the need for more resources to teach such pupils. We can thus expect more pressure to complicate the poverty criterion and the working assumptions of the link between poverty and attainment.
Then there is the question of how the money is spent. Asking whether the money is ‘really’ used for poorer pupils, is a great excuse for more centralization & micromanagement. Targets (success criteria) can be ‘refined’ and budget detail micr0-managed even more, to ‘ensure’ that the money is really spent on poorer pupils.
We can expect pressure for more complexity. If we don’t, the PP policy will simply fade away as it merges with the general, inordinately complex system of micromanaging school budgets and ‘success criteria’ from Whitehall.
So PP is a great policy on two assumptions – that centralised system cannot be changed, and that the pressure to complicate the policy can be resisted.
So with these two big caveats, in mind, why not extend the concept to universities? Vince Cable MP has referred to the shortage of skilled technical graduates across British industry, hindering growth. So why not put the social mobility/anti-poverty strategy together with this and create a ‘student premium’? That is, offering to pay the tuition fees of students from poorer backgrounds if they undertake courses in technical degrees in subjects where the UK has a shortage. This could be another antidote to the ‘student fees’ debacle.
Or should we go in the other direction and oppose the centralization of school and university funding systems? Maybe that’s a question too far …?
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.