Pupil Premium: is it working? Probably – but it’s not a quick-fix solution

The Pupil Premium – money targeted at children from low-income households – is the Lib Dems’ flagship education policy. By the end of the Parliament, it will be worth £2.5 billion, cash given directly to schools to spend as they wish on improving attainment outcomes.

Is it working? That’s the question being asked, given the news that the attainment gap at age 16 – the difference between GCSE results achieved by pupils eligible for free school meals and all other pupils – increased very slightly last year. In fact, results for both low-income pupils and all other pupils improved; but all other pupils improved a little faster, so the gap rose from 26.3% to 26.7%.

The news has been pounced upon by newspapers on the left (The Guardian: “The findings will come as a blow to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg”) and right (Daily Mail: “Nick Clegg’s £2.5billion pupil premium has failed to narrow the gap between the achievements of the poorest schoolchildren and their wealthier counterparts”) to declare the Pupil Premium a failure.

Well, let’s take a look at the evidence. First, here’s a graph showing the attainment gap for pupils aged 16:

attainment aged 16

That shows how stubborn the attainment gap is to shift. But, then, is it that surprising? The pupils whose results we’re looking at (those who took GCSEs in 2013) received two years’ Pupil Premium funding, worth a little over £1,000 each. It was unlikely to be a game-changing amount that late in most pupils’ schooling.

Let’s look, though, at the attainment gap for younger pupils, those aged 11:

attainment aged 11

This is a more hopeful picture: the fall in the attainment gap (down from 20% to 16.8%) in the first year of Pupil Premium funding was significant. This is, of course, just one year’s data. It will be important to see if such a narrowing in the attainment gap can be sustained. But the progress at primary school is a counter-balance to those rushing to write-off the Pupil Premium as a failure.

It makes sense, of course, that Pupil Premium money spent on younger children is more likely to have an impact. Better to try and stop children from falling behind, rather than trying to catch them up later on.

Interestingly, the Coalition has responded to this early evidence, skewing Pupil Premium funding towards primary age children. From September, schools will receive an additional £1,300 for each primary school pupil from a low-income background, whereas secondary schools will receive £935. Of course, money in itself is not the answer – it isn’t how much is spent but how effectively it’s spent.

As I wrote in December 2012, when warning against an expectation that the Pupil Premium is a quick-fix, politicians need to avoid panic meddling. If the Pupil Premium is to work – and it will, I think, in time – then we need to recognise that this a long-haul policy:

The Lib Dems and the Coalition need to resist the temptation to look for quick-fix levers to pull. A compliance culture must always seem attractive to politicians working to election cycles, desperate to show their policy has delivered immediate results. But real, enduring change takes longer, and needs the collaboration of both policy-makers and those delivering public services. The pupil premium is an important part of that approach, providing schools with the resources they need to make changes that can improve the lives of the children who need it most. But it’s going to take time to make a real difference.

* 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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  • Good article Stephen. The good news is the year-on-year increasing levels of attainment by ALL pupils. Yes it is concerning that the gap between groups at age 16 seems to have slightly increased, but from the data provided it would seem that it is oscillating around 27%.

    I do agree at this stage with respect to the pupil premium/free school meals we should only really expect to start seeing benefits in the younger children, particularly among those moving from primary to junior schools. Although the marked reduction in the age 11 gap is very encouraging.

    Given the ‘constraints’ placed on what schools can do with the pupil premium, I would be interested in seeing whether more significant trends are being seen within individual schools and particularly those with significant numbers of pupils receiving free meals/pupil premium.

  • Stephen a question I assume the “all other pupils” data is only all other state school pupils?
    Hence a further dimension is to add bars representing pupils in the fee paying sector.

  • Peter Davies 29th Jan '14 - 12:15pm

    The two attainment measures are not ideal for studying the effects of a particular policy since they only measure and amplify changes at the centre of the achievement range. A comparison using, say, a weighted average grade would be much more interesting.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Jan '14 - 12:28pm

    A policy can never fail if you do not put a time limit on it, for there is always next year for it to get better.
    What I would like to see is for the government to estimate what the figures should be for each year, and then we can tell if the policy is on target.
    There are a lot of variables in what could improve education attainment, so this is not straight forward.

  • Christine Headley 29th Jan '14 - 12:45pm

    Is it known how Infant pupil premiums are going to work when all Infant children get school meals for free?

  • Melanie Harvey 29th Jan '14 - 12:50pm

    And what affect has this had on say, which appears to now be a growing trend, for schools to diagnose and or declare the child with such conditions as ADHD. Does this bring more revenue for Academies for example.

  • I agree with Peter Davies that the measure being used is problematical. If there were an element of grade inflation in those age 11 results then that in itself would tend to reduce the “attainment gap”, even if there were no change in the intrinsic performance of the pupils.

    And while the attainment gap in that graph has decreased quite a lot over the last six years, looked at another way about twice as many in the free school meal group failed to meet the standard in 2011-12, which is roughly the same ratio as in 2005-6. Obviously some thought needs to be given to how best to measure things in a meaningful way.

  • Roland – I’m not sure you’d have comparable data as independent schools don’t always do SATs, and if they do they may not be required to disclose the results

  • Robert Wootton 29th Jan '14 - 1:47pm

    What if; we create an economy where the maximum income/wage is twenty times the minimum wage and the minimum wage is one twentieth of the maximum wage that is paid in a business? Would poverty and deprivation, in economic terms be history? Would there be a need for a pupil premium then? Would funding for education be increased in line with an increase in tax revenue?

  • Chris Nelson 29th Jan '14 - 10:43pm

    This is a very good article from Stephen that makes a very good point. The changes in primary school attainment appear to me very significant, particularly where the gap has fallen by well over a third over seven years, and when the gap seems to have reduced most dramatically in the period between 2009-10 and 2011-12 when the PP took effect. I would definitely be interested to see what the figures for 2012-13 are so we can see if this is a trend.

    Geoff Payne is right to call for us to set intermediate targets – to set benchmarks for where we want the figures to go so that we can assess our progress – and from this measure, it looks like primary schools are the best place to set that target.

    I work in a secondary school and am disappointed but not suprised that the numerical gap between PP and non-PP has not closed. What makes setting targets even more complicated is that the overall standard of achievement is less consistent from year-to-year – with overall secondary standards improving at a rapid rate – which means that whatever difference that PP is making is likely to be obscured by these general improvements, making the effect of PP at this level difficult to isolate.

    That said – as Government policy is now to switch towards the “Progress 8” performance measure, which measures how much progress – perhaps it would be easier to see the effect of PP in secondary schools if we looked at how many “levels of progress” PP students make, relative to the position they were in at the end of primary level, rather than just their overall attainment.

  • Correlation is not causation.

    There have been a raft of different changes in education policy, pre-school provision, changing demographics and diet, in early intervention programs and technology – all of which may, or may not, have had an impact on the difference in performance between the two groups. Which means these figures provide only limited support for the pupil premium policy – and, of course, if we’re to really support the pupil premium, the comparison shouldn’t be to no premium but to what else we could spend £2.5 billion a year on.

    Incidentally, there is evidence that shortening the long summer holiday would radically reduce the gap in performance between rich and poor. It’s also a low cost intervention, will we see that in the next Lib Dem manifesto? Preferably combined with a commitment to trial the program properly in a well controlled trial, overseen and conducted by academics, with a duty to publish the results regardless of outcome.

  • @Jack – Re: Trial of shorter summer holiday.

    Don’t really see the need for a trial, just the collation of evidence.

    One of my local academy’s, located in a ‘deprived’ area, has a strict admissions policy based on catchment and statistically normalised distribution of assessed ability at KS2. It has for many years now been rated as’outstanding’ by OFSTED and has achieved results at GCSE that put it in the top 200 secondary schools in the country… It’s school year is 5 terms of 8 weeks with 2 week breaks between and 4 weeks in the summer.

    Yes I agree, we do need to revisit the traditional school terms and holidays to see if different arrangements are more conducive to the modern environment. However, I suspect that much is also attributable to the staff and ethos of the school as much as the actual time pupils are expected to attend…

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