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.
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* Rick Muir is Associate Director of IPPR