Opinion: can the Pupil Premium only ever score 23%?

This may come as a shock if you’re a dedicated school governor. You see, I have a confession. I was in a governors’ conference last year and my attention wandered. During the keynote speech, no less. In fact, it didn’t just wander; I found the speaker so baffling that I resorted to doing maths.

I’ve been fascinated – obsessed even – with how you help children from disadvantaged, sometimes chaotic, homes make the progress they should at primary school (I’m Chair of Governors at a Hackney primary school with a culturally rich, but, on the whole, economically challenged intake). Now, obviously, tackling disadvantage is something that the pupil premium addresses head on. But not quite. And this is where the results of my necessity-inspired maths surprised me. I did the sums on how much time children spend in primary school.

The time of our lives

What would you estimate? If you’re trying to work out what proportion of their waking hours they spend in school. Include weekends and holidays in the calculations. Forty, fifty, sixty percent? If you guess or estimate around forty to sixty per cent, then you’re in good company. That’s the range most people plump for. The actual answer is 23%. That’s less than a quarter of time in school and more than three quarters of their time at home. Which may not be much of an issue if you have a stable home life, but it’s huge if your home and family environment is troubled and chaotic.

Money in time

So how does this affect the investment from the pupil premium? Well, it shows that no matter how much we spend on helping disadvantaged children during the normal school day, unless we address the fact that three-quarters of their time is spent outside school, it is unlikely that interventions such as the pupil premium will have the impact they should. Highly paid, highly pressured professionals complain about being ‘Time Poor’. What’s happening in our primary schools is a truer picture of what it really means to be ‘Time Poor’.

No alternative?

However, there is an alternative. And whether we give credit to the Labour government’s policies of introducing and promoting extended schools (which were poorly funded, but nevertheless a very good idea) or that suggest that good schools have always been extended, the lesson is clear in either case. Extended schools are a key tool in encouraging social mobility, helping eradicate child poverty and break what need not be a never ending cycle of want

But at what cost? Haven’t we put all our education eggs in more or less the same basket: the pupil premium? In the teeth of the spending cuts, isn’t this, perhaps not enough, but, all that we can realistically hope for? Actually, no. It takes surprisingly little intervention to start to shift the balance.

A small investment with a large return

With a couple of breakfast clubs a week, two to three after school clubs a week, and maybe three weeks in holiday time, we can very quickly bump 23% up to 40 to 50%. If we wish to use education in a way that truly helps level the playing field and makes a difference in terms of social mobility, child poverty or however else we wish to quantify it, improving a child’s total environment must be part of the solution.

With relatively little investment we can make sure that the pupil premium doesn’t just pass but gets an A*. And more importantly, that all our children have the chance too.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The answer to children not acheiving isn’t more and more time in school.

    We’ve started pre-school earlier and earlier because it makes children ‘more prepared’ for school. But they aren’t all coming out with the desired results so we’ve increased compulsory education age from 16 to 18. Now do we really want to encourage spending more time per year in a school setting?

    Couldn’t we look at how and why the system fails children, instead of assuming that it would do better if it just had more time?

  • I could not agree more. Superb article based on fact, rather than ill-placed party loyalty.

    The pupil premium is a dereliction of duty by the Coalition. It is a shrinking + re-bundling of existing grants + funds designed to appeal to leader writers and make the Coalition feel as if they are fair. There is not a single educational group celebrating this LD policy – it is striking just how muted the response is. That should be telling party members something.

    it is societal problems that are the biggest problem for disadvantaged pupils + their families. By making it harder for schools to reach out to these communities – all in the name of forcing a policy ‘win’ through – the party has shown it simply doesn’t understand the challenges education faces.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Oct '10 - 5:24pm

    I don’t understand why breakfast clubs and after school clubs should be thought inimical to “help, support and cajoling” of parents. It’s got nothing to do with making school compulsory to 18 (a thoroughly bad policy). Nor does the author suggest that it will wipe out the effect of chaotic or inadequate parenting. It’s simply using a small amount of state resources to offer help which is most likely to make a difference where it’s most likely to be of use, but is not forced on anyone. Seems like a thoroughly good idea to me.

  • Because all the additional offers of help outside of school won’t make a significant impact if the school system continues to fail children.

    I know parents forced to home educate, not as a first choice like us, but as a last resort because state schooling has failed to meet their children’s educational or medical needs. Simply getting children to school doesn’t mean they meet their legal and moral obligation to provide a suitable education for their child.

    Look at our truancy figures, and the headlines today about 1 in 4 primary aged boys being labelled as having special educational needs. The answer can’t be just to offer more schooling (even if that takes the form of before and after school clubs rather than classroom time), we need to find out why the system isn’t meeting the needs of these children.

    For the children who do need support because of inadaqaute parenting, the biggest difference would be getting their families to place more value on education. Rather than intitives that remove the children from the familes for greater amounts of time, we need intitives that increase parental participation in the child’s education. That doesn’t mean not having clubs on offer, but might it not be a better idea to bring them out of schools and into communities, making them more to do with families and less to do with schools? The idea that school is the place children go to learn is harmful, in my opinion, to those children who need the most support, as it appears to absolve their parents of their legal responsibility to ensure their child is provided with a suitable education so long as the child attends school, even if they actually get little or unsuitable education while there. Sometimes it’s then only recognised as a problem if the child gets fed up and starts to truant or refuse to attend school.

  • What does “culturally rich” mean?

  • Um breakfast clubs and after school clubs aren’t generally learning time, certainly not in the same way as the rest of the school day.

    Breakfast clubs are and excellent way of making sure kids get a good breakfast before starting school for the day which makes a marked difference to their attention spans and therefore ability to learn.

    After school clubs are a good way of keeping kids off the streets and making it possible for parents to work full time with school age kids,. I don’t think they have much educational worth at least as they are currently run.

    I have no problem with the idea of the school day being extended to 9-5 in secondary schools (9-3 is long enough for primary age kids IMHO) but if we are doing this to increase the teaching time then that extra time needs to be spent teaching them.

  • Simon de Deney 20th Oct '10 - 9:58am

    I take your point about overschooling. But isn’t this down to the wrong attitude to what children need ie a narrow focusing on the curriculum (and even having a curriculum as a mindset)?

    If we jump sideways and take a completely fresh look at how we can use schools to help our children, we can see them helping in a much broader way than they’re often viewed at the moment.

    Am I right in believing that you have a low opinion of schools? I certainly don’t think that we should take a course that absolves parents of responsibility. However, the reality is that for some families their lives are so chaotic and their own formative experiences so poor that we need to find a way to help their children (as well as them) experience a different way to grow up and flourish.

    I’m a fairly new member, so I don’t feel knowledgable enough to comment on the analysis of LibDem policy. But I do agree that we need to look at education in a braoder, societal context and how we can use schools as a haven and resource to increase life chances.

    @Liberal neil
    I’m not sure I buy the ‘realism’ argument. There’s been a lot of research and programmes developed from the research that show what can be done to help children, particularly in Early Years, make accelerated progress developmentally and educationally. If we just say, ‘there are a wide range of parents’, that suggests there’s little we can do to influence their children apart from the small amount of time they spend in school and possibly targeted interventions if things are going wrong. By which time it’s starting to get too late and certainly more expensive to help.

    Changing a child’s environment positively and then the amount of time they spend in that environment (which can, and at its best, does include families) makes a difference to how they experience the world, their values, their self-esteem.

  • I don’t have a low opinion of individual schools and teachers – I think some do a wonderful job. But I think they do it despite the system we have, and that they aren’t enabled by this system to do so easily.

    The research into Early Years Education shows, so far as I’m aware and please point me to other research if I’m wrong, that it has good results for children who need an intervention. For those who don’t, they may start school slightly ‘ahead’ (in certain ways which we measure and assume confer a long term advantage) of those who have had less or no pre-school education – but these differences balance out quite quickly. Basically, if they don’t need an intervention they just take longer to settle into school.

    So we come to a small group of parents who are not fullfilling their legal duty to provide their child with a suitable education. Is it the role of the school system to step up and take on that responsibilty for those parents? Is that fair to school staff? Or should that responsibility belong elsewhere?

  • Mike(The Labour one) 20th Oct '10 - 3:26pm

    CSR: ‘real terms increases of 0.1 per cent in each year of the Spending Review for the 5
    to 16s school budget, including a £2.5 billion pupil premium. Underlying per pupil
    funding will be maintained in cash terms’

    ‘Including’- where has the money come from for the Pupil Premium then? Somewhere from the schools budget by the look of it.

  • David Allen 20th Oct '10 - 5:56pm

    I agree with Anna. The advocates of early intervention continually make much of the “impressive” results obtained by pulling under-fives out of crack houses in New York and giving them schooling. Hey presto, performance raise from abysmal to mediocre. This does not prove that it makes equal sense to provide mediocre early schooling to kids who don’t live in crack houses!

    When ours were at primary level, we regularly took holidays in term time, not to save money, but because that meant they could spend all summer at home, where they learnt more than they did at school.

    Now the fashion is to hot-house children by increasing their nominally productive hours, pushing them through multiple clubs, and finally getting them ever-higher A level grades by means of endless resits on a dumbed-down syllabus. Then they get to university, where they actually need to think, and the hot-house cramming system finally breaks down.

    Labour thought they would achieve educational glory by force-feeding children facts. Can’t we reverse this disastrous aproach?

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Oct '10 - 9:30pm

    I am not convinced by the arguments in this article, but I am not aware of any barriers which would prevent schools from using the pupil premium for exactly this purpose, if they thought it was worthwhile in individual cases.

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