Fraser Nelson attacks pupil premium using report that, erm, doesn’t attack pupil premium

fraser nelsonFraser Nelson is in bold form today: Spending more doesn’t improve public services.

His basis for this judgement is a report prepared for the Department for Education by Deloitte (available here). If there’s a headline conclusion it’s the fairly uncontentious point that simply spending money on schools does not, in itself, guarantee good outcomes. It matters at least as much how you spend it.

So far, so obvious. And if Fraser’s article had stuck to that basic conclusion it would’ve been fine. But he wanted to make a different point, so spun the report accordingly.

Here’s Fraser over at the Spectator claiming, incorrectly, that the report is fatal for the Lib Dems’ pupil premium policy, which targets additional money at children from disadvantaged backgrounds (those eligible for free school meals):

This was devastating for the Pupil Premium policy: the Lib Dems’ flagship education policy was based on a false (and, now, disproven) premise. … In other words: cease and desist, Mr Laws, your idea sounds good but the cash doesn’t work. You’re on a hiding to nothing. If you have a billion quid, spend it on something that helps pupils — not something that Nick Clegg can use as an applause line in speeches.

Contrast Fraser’s definitive ‘this is a failed policy’ with Deloitte’s actual findings.

First, they make a particular point of saying what their report does NOT claim:

It may be helpful to clarify what is not being claimed. … We do not claim that the school funding system (or the pupil premium specifically) is fundamentally flawed, only that there is no correlation at all between the level of per pupil funding and educational outcomes. (p.14)

Deloitte also explicitly point out the limits of the data their analysis is based on…

Our analysis considers the impact of some of these policies on pupil performance at KS4, subject to data availability with the caveat that our analysis is not longitudinal but a ‘snap shot’ of the most recent academic year for which there is complete data (2010-11).

… and point out that it is too soon to say whether new initiatives like the pupil premium will work…

Thus, while the impact of the Academies programme, which has been in operation for a number of years, is likely to be observable, for other more recent policies, such as Free Schools or the Pupil Premium, not enough time will have elapsed to identify their potential impact on educational outcomes. (p.16)

…so recommend further research…

that takes advantage of the longitudinal nature of the NPD to answer questions such as: … Is the Pupil Premium effective in improving performance? (p.15)

So let’s run that past Fraser again, as he missed it first time around… Deloitte do not claim their analysis shows the pupil premium won’t work; they also say it’s too soon to know whether it will work; and they propose further research in the future so its success can be judged.

And if you want to read more about why I think the pupil premium is an effective (and, for that matter, liberal) way to improve educational outcomes for all, including children from disadvantaged backgrounds, here’s what I wrote six months ago: The pupil premium isn’t a quick-fix solution, it’s a long-haul policy.

Full disclosure: I work for a charity which focuses on improving educational outcomes for children from low-income backgrounds. This post (as with all my postings on LDV) is written in a personal capacity.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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12 Comments

  • But it does say that ‘there is no correlation at all between the level of per pupil funding and educational outcomes.’

    Given that the sole and entire basis of the Pupil Premium is to improve educational outcomes through additional per-pupil funding, I’m not sure Nelson’s interpretation is entirely unjustifiable.

  • Peter Davies 26th Apr '13 - 1:41pm

    Without differential funding, you would expect schools with poorer pupils to perform worse than those with richer ones. A funding system that results in no correlation between outcomes and funding (which itself correlates directly to poverty) sound remarkably successful.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th Apr '13 - 1:54pm

    I think Fraser Nelson is out to make mischief. He is not a friend of the Liberal Democrats but an ardent Thatcherite .

    Ask a teacher in a decent school the following question: Will throwing money at a problem on its own solve the problem of underachievement among disadvantaged children and the answer will be “No.” One does not need to read the research of Deloitte to answer the question – ask the professional on the ground.

    The key to improvement over time is how the school develops their educational strategy, alongside the money – also a key factor is the support of the parents in the target group.

    The Pupil Premium is not a quick fix – there is no quick fix because money on its own cannot solve material and social deprivation (of mind, body and spirit) but a long haul policy, as Stephen Tall rightly comments.

  • “Without differential funding, you would expect schools with poorer pupils to perform worse than those with richer ones. A funding system that results in no correlation between outcomes and funding (which itself correlates directly to poverty) sound remarkably successful.”

    If I understand correctly the analysis is based on data from the period before the Pupil Premium was introduced.

  • Stuart Mitchell 27th Apr '13 - 8:55am

    “[Fraser Nelson claims] that the report is fatal for the Lib Dems’ pupil premium policy, which targets additional money at children from disadvantaged backgrounds”

    No it doesn’t. The policy is to give the money to schools and then allow them to spend it however they wish. As Ofsted have found, though some schools are targeting the money at disadvantaged children, many are not. Nelson’s criticisms are perfectly valid, and are the same criticisms that people like me have been levelling at the policy since day one.

  • Apparently Fraser Nelson was named Political Columnist of the Year in the 2009 Comment Awards – so he must “know his stuff”
    Looking at the way he has taken a statement that – in general, says that not enough time and data is available to pass judgment and turned it into ‘this is a failed policy’ Proves that he is indeed a political columnist; a Tory one that is simply putting as much negative press towards the Lib/Dems as possible.
    As this is constantly happening throughout most of the media, it is no wonder that the Lib/Dems are still not taken seriously by most of the people- those that only read & hear the sound-bites.They all add up in the subconscious and create an emotional negative “feeling” -consciously; whether they know it or not!

  • The pupil premium issue is just a minor part of Nelson’s piece, which is based on the premise that there is no link whatsoever between levels of spending and the quality of public service. The logical conclusion of his argument would be to proclaim that you can cut spending by 50% / 60% or more, with no impact on services. This is palpable nonsense.

  • Unfortunately, Fraser Nelson is actually right about the raw figures. If you correlate spending per pupil and the number achieving five good GCSEs for example, the figure is actually slightly negative. That was always a lurking flaw behind the pupil premium policy.

    However, it does not mean there is no positive effect from higher funding, or indeed that cutting funding will improve standards. What I believe it means is that there is another factor at work in the areas receiving higher funding. That factor, I believe, is culture, both inside and outside schools. If more deprived areas receive higher funding, but the prevailing culture in those areas is an even more important and negative factor, the correlation will appear negative.

    Until we can achieve a generalised cultural change and make sure children from families in less advantaged areas are socialised and motivated to make the best of the educational opportunities there are, then we are not going to solve this problem of underachievement among the less well off.

  • Helen Tedcastle 27th Apr '13 - 4:42pm

    RC: ” If you correlate spending per pupil and the number achieving five good GCSEs for example, the figure is actually slightly negative. That was always a lurking flaw behind the pupil premium policy.”

    On the contrary, what this proves that it is a fallacy for the balance-sheet obsessives to think that if X amount of money is put into education that this will certainly produce Y outcomes.

    Young people are not statistics to be manipulated but flesh and blood often with complex problems and unfortunately for economists, they do not always behave as numbers do.

    It is much better in my view for the money to be given to schools to help them draw up training for staff and strategies which aim to help the young people identified, to enhance their educational entitlement – then let them get on with it.

    The value for money money obsession means people expect quick returns but it doesn’t work like that with human beings.

  • As RC implies, it’s useless to try to draw a conclusion about one factor (spending per pupil) in isolation, without taking into account all the other relevant factors. For that reason, I think the authors of this study would find it very difficult indeed to get it published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Perhaps the Department of Education would have done better with some academic epidemiologists, who would have had a better grasp of the statistical subleties (though really the point is a very basic one).

  • @A C Trussel:

    “Fraser Nelson was named Political Columnist of the Year in the 2009 Comment Awards – so he must “know his stuff”

    I imagine someone who regularly produces such a polished column must spend much time and effort polishing his column – but does that mean the premises from which he argues every week are any more right (as opposed to ‘Right’)?

  • “I imagine someone who regularly produces such a polished column must spend much time and effort polishing his column”

    A line almost worthy of Kenneth Williams …

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