The Independent View: Clegg’s Pupil Premium could be wasted

Keen to move on from the poor headlines of the last few weeks, Nick Clegg has sought to re-focus attention on his flagship social mobility agenda with a speech on the Pupil Premium.

The Pupil Premium is the government’s main policy for reducing educational inequality in schools, meaning that schools get extra funding for every child on Free School Meals (£488 this year, £600 next year). IPPR has always welcomed the Pupil Premium but have expressed concerns that it will not be spent directly on providing extra support for the children who need it. Under the current model, schools are free to spend it on whatever they like – and the majority of heads say they are using it to plug gaps in existing budgets.

Today, Nick Clegg has sought to respond to these criticisms by announcing a string of supplementary measures. The government says that Ofsted will assess how effectively the money is being spent on ‘closing the gap’ in educational attainment, although it is unclear whether this will mean that a school will fail an inspection if it doesn’t narrow the gap. Schools will also be offered cash prizes, with the 50 schools that have made most progress receiving £10,000. There will be some extra money to support children who leave primary school without Level 4 literacy and some of the PP budget is being spent on summer schools for children in deprived areas starting this year.

All of these measures are welcome, but on their own they are unlikely to be sufficient to make sure that schools focus the new funds on extra support for the most disadvantaged pupils. The government says it will hold schools to account for their progress on narrowing the gap, but the effect of this is blunted by the fact that schools are now to be held to account for a whole range of other things as well.

In particular heads have been told that the ‘gold standard’ in terms of league table position will be the proportion of their pupils who attain the new ‘English Baccalaureate’ in key academic subjects. Given that only a small minority of children on Free School Meals are on track to attain the English Baccalaureate, this creates a powerful counter-incentive for teachers to focus on the better off children who will.

Those schools in the bottom half of the league tables are told they should focus on another target: that 50 per cent of their intake should get 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. This encourages these schools to focus their efforts on the performance of children on the borderline between a C and a D, rather than focusing on narrowing the social class gap between pupils.

If the priority in our education system is to be closing the gap then the government should design an accountability system for schools that makes this every school’s objective. Instead we have a confusing mix of different accountability measures, with the attainment of the E Bacc taking most prominence.

The government needs to go further. It should introduce a Pupil Premium Entitlement such that all of the Pupil Premium money for each child is spent on additional support for that child. Schools should be accountable to those children’s parents for delivering this entitlement in the ways it thinks best. This must not be too prescriptive but parents should be given a clear indication of the kind of additional support their child will receive, which could include intensive reading catch up or family support.

The Government should also look again at the accountability system for schools, moving away from league tables based just on raw attainment and towards a School Report Card system that gives schools a clear grade based on a number of metrics, including closing the gap in attainment between children from different backgrounds. This would hardwire the Government’s social mobility objectives into the way every school is assessed.

If steps are not taken to focus this money on where it is needed, the Government will have missed a massive opportunity to start reducing educational inequality.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Rick Muir is Associate Director of IPPR

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15 Comments

  • Rebecca Hanson 15th May '12 - 9:41am

    I commented on the speech here if you’re interested Rick:
    http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/05/more-futility-on-mobility/

    Re: School accountability – the issue is really very simple.
    In 2005 Philip Hampton concluded a review into best practice in inspection and regulation which established the Hampton principles for high quality inspection and regulation. In 2006 the Legislative and Regulator Reform Act instilled these principles into inspection and regulation by making these principles law:
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/51/section/21
    By 2008 it seemed that all regulators were obligated to these standards and since then I have been stunned by how blatantly Ofsted have ignored them and mystified as to why they have not been taken to court. Recently it was reported on the BBC that they had, but this was not correct as the issue was fudged – but discussion about this issue has unearthed a special order to the act in which Ofsted exempted themselves from having to apply these standards to state schools.

    This is obscene. Unlike all other institutions state schools effectively have no legal protection from their regulator and Ofsted are not obliged to the standards all other regulators apply. This needs to be rectified NOW.

    Regarding high quality accountability for progress up to the age of 14 I suggest you read my blog on integrating formative and summative assessment which starts here:
    http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/assessing-students-up-to-age-14-much.html

  • Richard Swales 15th May '12 - 10:16am

    The state school system is not for the most part about getting people into Oxbridge, the cabinet and the BBC news room. When I was a kid the main metric for schools was percentage of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSE. The top stream (i.e. kids who were nailed on to do this anyway) therefore had the worst teacher/student ratio and resources were focussed on the borderline cases. None of the top stream got to Oxbridge however.
    If we want schools to use other metrics like percentage of pupils getting to pre-1992 universities or this baccalaureate (don’t know much about it but based on what’s said above), then resources will be focussed where rhetoric seems to suggest we want them focussed, away from the borderline cases and onto the kids who can best compete at getting into the establishment against the enemies of the people from the private school system.

  • I dont agree with the thrust of this article. In the real world, what do you do, partition the playground and classrooms and herd the FSM kids into their own enclosures so that any equipment purchased with PP money is only used by them?

    PP doesn’t solve all the problems. It particularly fails to address SEN. But it helps to rebalance school funding a little.

    I do agree that peverse incentives are a real concern. It does seem that some sort of mind switch was flicked in the brains of some politicians the minute they got into government with respect to the target culture.

  • local gvt worker 15th May '12 - 12:49pm

    just so people are aware rick is a former labour cllr in oxford and remains a labour activist in london. i think “independent” pieces should make such political affliations clear.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '12 - 4:48pm

    @local gvt worker
    To be fair, the article does make it clear that the author is writing as the Associate Director of IPPR, and it does seem a very moderate and balanced piece. It is certainly more honest, informative, thoughtful and thought-provoking than Nick Clegg’s (http://www.libdemvoice.org/nick-clegg-sets-out-plans-to-break-private-schools-grip-on-establishment-28504.html) and John Leech’s (http://www.libdemvoice.org/john-leech-mp-writes-its-not-just-the-leaders-job-to-sell-the-pupil-premium-28531.html) assertions that the pupil premium is a magical silver bullet that will put launch poor kids into Oxbridge and break the grip of private schools on the establishment.
    It saddens me that in government we seem to relish doing things for which we condemned Labour (e.g. just throw some money at a problem, start layering one target on top of another to plug loopholes or unintended consequences).

  • local gvt worker 15th May '12 - 5:02pm

    well i dont see how you can say it’s happened “in government” – the pupil premium has been talked about in these terms for several years prior to the election. you can accuse the lib dems for lots of things, but attacking them because you don’t agree with a flagship policy of 5 years is a bit silly.

    secondly i’m not passing judgement on the content of what rick says, but i do think it is a bit much when libdemvoice allows known opposition supporters to write articles deconstructing lib dem policies without adding that health warning.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '12 - 5:40pm

    @local gvt worker
    I hope that nobody would attack the pupil premium: extra resources for educating the poorest kids can only be a good thing. But throwing money at a problem is only a means to an end and Rick Muir seems to point out quite well the risks of doing so without a clear idea of how that money is to be spent. I think that some grandiose claims are made for the pupil premium without filling in the gaps between X billion pounds this year and better social mobility next year. Also, unless the pupil premium is part of a cohesive set of social policies, it can achieve little by itself. In opposition we seemed to criticise Labour for thinking they could improve the NHS just by increasing expenditure and now we seem to be doing the same.
    I agree that a little political biography would be useful for anyone contributing an “independent” article, but it doesn’t change the validity (or otherwise) of the views expressed and in this case I didn’t feel that the author was writing in a partisan or unsubstantiated way. He did write that the IPPR has always welcomed the pupil premium and pointed out some very real risks that could make this good policy could go wrong in practice if we are not careful. It is in everybody’s interests to make sure that the pupil premium achieves something meaningful.

  • Simon Beard 15th May '12 - 5:41pm

    This is why I don’t vote Labour and never will.

    Sorry, but I honestly believe that, imperfect as they are, head teachers are better judges of how to spend their budgets for the benefit of their pupils than policy wonks at the IPPR!

  • Peter Watson 15th May '12 - 6:16pm

    @Simon Beard
    “head teachers are better judges of how to spend their budgets for the benefit of their pupils than policy wonks at the IPPR”
    Like paying PR firms (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/apr/19/primary-school-paid-pr-firm)
    or just “antiques and sex games” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2136392/206-000-superhead-quits-police-probe-lavish-spending-Academies-chief-hired-family-spent-millions-riding-centre-French-complex.html)

    On a more serious point. Rick Muir points out that school heads have targets against which they are judged by Gove et al, and that is what they will spend the money on. If social mobility improves at all, it will only be as a side-effect of that. And if the expenditure is concentrated on marginal C-D grade GCSE students or forcing kids to do E.Bacc. subjects even if they are unsuitable, then we could see no meaningful improvement to the opportunities of any of the kids who should benefit from what the pupil premium could be used for.
    It is a blinkered approach to pupil premium as the be all and end all that puts me off voting Lib Dem again. In and of itself, it is not an education policy: it is a way to fund education (and social) policies, and that is what seems to be missing from the debate.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th May '12 - 7:56pm

    Having schools report to parents on how the money is spent is a good idea. Let’s do that.

    I don’t really see any benefits to state meddling in how it is spent.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '12 - 9:15pm

    @Andrew
    I don’t have a problem with heads determining how to spend the money, only with the claims some Lib Dems make about the benefits that this will bring.
    We cannot on the one hand let heads choose how to spend the money while on the other hand claim it is a great tool for improving social mobility. There is no guarantee that the spending priorities for heads will coincide with the requirements of improving social mobility.
    By all means celebrate the extra investment in education that comes with the pupil premium, but be prepared to rebut accusations that we rob Peter to pay Paul by raiding the new school buildings fund, EMAs, etc.
    The pupil premium could be spent on many useful things. If schools choose to invest it in giving their children valuable skills through vocational training we just look ridiculous if we boast that it will break Eton’s stranglehold on the establishment.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th May '12 - 6:02pm

    A good article which exposes the inherent contradictions in current education policy.

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