Opinion: Pupil Premium. Extend the concept?

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 works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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10 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th May '12 - 12:26pm

    An excellent article highlighting the virtues of the PP.

    In particular, Paul Reynolds highlights the contradictions at the heart of the coalition with regard to Education in particular: ‘Given that we are as a party opposed to such illiberal centralization and command systems..’

    What a pity that the PP is so completely at odds with the rest of schools policy, sanctioned incidentally, by our leadership in the Government – expanded academies (centralised schooling), Free Schools (centralised funding with any one with an axe to grind against the current system (no teaching qualifications needed), can set up a school, wherever they want.

    Of course the curriculum is once again being tinkered with centrally, teachers are being told how to run their schools by someone whose career was in the Murdoch press..etc..

    I like the PP because it will go some way to help disadvantaged children but the lack of joined up thinking at Education is deeply damaging to our own image as a party that has little clout with certain key Tory ministers, who are on a personal ideological mission.

  • Alex Sabine 18th May '12 - 2:32pm

    The move towards free schools and academies can be presented as centralising in that the creation of such schools (or conversion of LEA maintained schools into academies) in the first place has to be approved by central government. By contract, they are answerable to, and are funded by, DfE – although in practice, as Paul says in his article, all schools funding comes from the Treasury anyway.

    However, measured by the degree of autonomy such schools have over their day-to-day running, free schools and academies are much less circumscribed by either central or local government than their maintained counterparts. They must sign up to the National Curriculum (which applies even to private schools), although they have greater freedom over how to deliver this; and they have independence about who to recruit, their teachers’ pay and conditions, and how they spend their budget.

    In a recent survey by The Schools Network to which nearly 500 academies responded, financial autonomy, educational autonomy and freedom to buy services from providers other than the local authority were cited as the main reasons why they chose to become academies. Oddly enough, they did not do so because they felt it would tether them to central government.

    Now, I would argue that there is still too much government prescription, and that Michael Gove’s ‘supply-side’ radicalism wrestles (sometimes unsuccessfully) with an inclination to dictate some of the minutiae of how schools are run (eg school uniforms) which is a hangover from the New Labour era. However the claim that an education system with greater diversity of providers who have more autonomy over the strategic running of their schools amounts simply to centralisation strikes me as a bit daft.

    One factual point about the Pupil Premium. Paul says in his article that it “contrasts us well as ‘pro-poor’ relative to the Conservatives”. This is disingenuous: both coalition parties were committed to introducing a PP, so unsurprisingly it swiftly made its way into the coalition agreement.

    See page 53 of the Tories’ 2010 manifesto: “Education’s real power lies in its ability to transform life chances, but we can’t go on giving the poorest children the worst education. That is why we will introduce a pupil premium – extra funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th May '12 - 6:13pm

    @AlexSabine: ‘… as Paul says in his article, all schools funding comes from the Treasury anyway.’

    Except that under the maintained system, there is local accountability and the ability of local authorities to idenitfy needs and plan across the area; there is pooling of resources for training and advisors through the LEA – all this will go as another layer of local governance is eroded and privatised , with advisors being brought in from consultancies (making shed loads of cash) to work with chains of schools. So where’s the accountability and monitoring? Answer: there is none until you get to Mr Gove.

    Quoting Alex Sabine: ‘They must sign up to the National Curriculum (which applies even to private schools), although they have greater freedom over how to deliver this; and they have independence about who to recruit, their teachers’ pay and conditions…’

    So academies sign up to the National Curriculm, which is being tinkered with yet again. The ill-thought-out EBacc aims to push schools to enter the most academic for a narrow range of selected subjects, (no one has yet explained with sufficient justification, the omission of RS from the Humanities element), and the average to below average student being marginalised; and at the same time Gove wishes to tear up nationally agreed pay for teachers, even though the system already has performance -related pay and extra bursaries for key subjects! Why deregulate, except to undermine the unions for ideological reasons.
    So, it is likely that a teacher with equal experience, qualifications and ability in the north of England, could well end up with less money than someone with equal qualifications in a similar school in the Midlands – because the Head decides he needs to save money! Is that fair reward for an equally hard days work?

    ‘However the claim that an education system with greater diversity of providers who have more autonomy over the strategic running of their schools amounts simply to centralisation strikes me as a bit daft.’

    What is daft is the inability to realise the creeping inequality and unfairness being built into the system by this Secretary of State – hoping that laissez-faire economics combined with centralised tinkering, (I would argue that this is a daft and almost schizophrenic mix), is the best way to improve education.

    Politicians need to stop interfering with schools and let teachers do their job, like they did before 1979 – the Gove ‘golden age.’

    How unfair and how socially illiberal…

  • This is bizarre. It proposes “to pay the tuition fees of students from poorer backgrounds”. But we already have big scholarships for kids from poor backgrounds. Why reinvent the wheel?

  • Paul Reynolds 19th May '12 - 9:01am

    Thanks Tim. This part of the article was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Although the problem of large-scale unmet needs from the UK education system is a serious one.

  • How can we expect children to learn and study effectively if they are hungry and cold most of the time, and so are their parents? That is why I completely support the pupil premium. Wealthier parents can contribute more financially to a school, the pupil premium rebalances this.

  • Paul Reynolds 21st May '12 - 5:35am

    Readers will by now have learnt that DPM Nick Clegg has announced the Student Premium policy. I deny any fore-knowledge….-ish. Sort of.

  • re: Student Premium policy
    I hope that it is in the form of a bursary/maintenance grant that will help the student to live whilst at university ie. reduce the amount of non-student loan debt the student will incur. I see no real value to either the student or society for the SP to pay tuition fees.

  • Julian Wright 22nd May '12 - 3:45pm

    What is important is that we get the best ‘return on investment’ for Pupil Premium. We are using a system called TIMEextra that monitors its spend and identifies what activity is having the biggest impact on attainment, behaviour and attendance. This is all then published to a website as required by DfE.

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