The Independent View: The pupil premium may be starting to deliver – but beware false dawns of the past

student_ipad_school - 175Today Ofsted deliver their verdict on the Liberal Democrats’ pupil premium policy, four years into its existence – a pledge which was on the front page of the party’s manifesto. In straitened times, this was a welcome commitment to focus limited resources on poorer children, and an explicit attempt to break the cycle of poverty.

There are positive signs that the additional resources being put in through pupil premium are being used better to improve the education of children from low income backgrounds, but not yet evidence that they are making the radical difference to the educational achievement of poorer pupils that is needed to make a real dent in poverty. Over the last 25 years many policies which looked very promising have failed to deliver more than a small narrowing in the attainment gap.

We don’t yet know what difference it will make to have Nicky Morgan at the top of the Department for Education instead of Michael Gove. But we do know what David Laws should keep his focus on in order to make sure that this central policy delivers as the Liberal Democrats promised it would.

First, he should avoid being bogged down in fights over school structures. A forthcoming JRF report shows that investing in particular kinds of school structure is unlikely to directly improve education for those at the bottom. Instead, today’s report highlights many of the same issues raised by the recent Select Committee report on ‘White Working Class Underachievement’ and that our evidence suggests should be central to the Liberal Democrats’ education mission.

The Ofsted reports that the difference between schools who are successful in this and those who are not is not the range of activities that they spend the Pupil Premium on. The difference is whether school leaders have analysed the needs of their pupils accurately and chosen the right interventions for their school. The Select Committee report echoes this and also highlights the importance of the quality of teaching.

The Teach First and Talented Leaders programmes are welcome attempts to address these core issues. But both are small scale compared to the overall number of teachers and leaders in our schools. One thing missing from both of these reports is a focus on ensuring that all teachers are engaged in really good Continuing Professional Development (CPD). My guess is that those schools with leaders who have analysed pupils’ needs, chosen well evidenced interventions and tracked their impact are also schools where teachers get good CPD. But we should do more than guess.

Ofsted are certainly concentrating minds on the attainment gap issue. But we’re not convinced that there is yet the support and capacity building in all areas to ensure that every school can rise to that challenge. Both Sir Michael Wilshaw and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have recommended sub-regional ‘Challenges’, following the London Challenge model.

If David Laws is looking for something distinctive to improve the current system this would be a good place to start: we should make sure that all areas have some structure which encourages collaboration and provides expertise in using external evidence and pupil data effectively to make best use of the pupil premium.

With the Liberal Democrats’ reshuffle yet to come and the election only months away, maintaining a focus on these core issues will not be easy. But Liberal Democrat ministers owe it to themselves – and to children trying to make up lost ground because of poverty – to get as much out of one of their most high profile and successful policies as they possibly can.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Helen Barnard is Policy and Research Manager for Poverty at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. David Laws will be speaking at a JRF fringe event at party conferences on the attainment gap. Find out more here

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Charles Rothwell 16th Jul '14 - 3:05pm

    THE crucial factor as far as I am concerned in discussed from the fourth paragraph onwards and that is the quality of TEACHING. Of course, heads are important and a really gifted headteacher can turn a failing school around, but as sure as anything he/she cannot do it on their own and they need talented, committed, dedicated and skilled staff at all the levels beneath them to do this and, in particular, make sure the improvement/turn-around is long-term and integrated into a culture of continuous improvement and pride in achievement at all levels, starting with that of the pupils but also that of the staff (of all kinds) as well. The latter factor is why Gove will not be missed in the slightest by thousands of state sector teachers, as he consistently denigrated them, eroded their pride and increasingly only took the word of Ofsted as being the valid one within education. The incessant changes to the curriculum, the ludicrous extension of the Academy programme without any thought whatsoever to regional/local control, the expensive experiment of “free” schools (for which ordinary taxpayers can pay in full, of course) and, in particular, the never-ending erosion of teachers’ terms and conditions (employment of unqualified personnel in Academies, introduction by fiat of payment by results/ending of the automatic pay progression system (which will leave many not progressing much beyond average national salaries), the incessant emphasis on ‘academic excellence’ as interpreted in some misty-eyed nostalgia for the blazer- and cap-wearing era of the 1950s, the culpable neglect of vocational education and training etc etc will all lead to many teachers saying “Good riddance!” loudly. One positive effect of his fall, however (as he obviously over-reached himself in the recent spat with Teresa May), could be that it might encourage the estimated 30 -50% of state school teachers who are seriously attracted by the prospect of leaving teaching to reconsider and continue serving their pupils. Without their (the teachers’) devotion and commitment, I am afraid any amount of surplus funding, no matter how praise-worthy, is not going really to raise the bar in the long term. After the target-obsessed centralizing and ever increasing micro-management of schools and colleges under New Labour, we are the Party which should above all be the party of “education, education, education” (and see it as infinitely more than just another sound bite as it evidently was to Blair!)

  • Indeed, Caracatus, the question isn’t really “does the pupil premium work?” but rather “is the pupil premium a sensible way to be spending £2.5 billion a year on this problem?”.

  • Nigel Cheeseman 16th Jul '14 - 3:38pm

    Charles Rothwell – your belief that the quality of TEACHING is a crucial factor is not borne out by the extensive research which underpins the whole purpose of the pupil premium. That is based on the incontrovertible fact that your background is a bigger indicator of later success than education, however good. Where the pupil premium founders is on the same premise. The emphasis and, therefore, the money needs to be placed where it will make a difference. Unfortunately the eradication of an underclass which scorns achievement and success is not a project which I have a blueprint for.

  • Charles Rothwell 16th Jul '14 - 4:04pm

    Here you go , Nigel:

    “The first, and most important, lesson is that no education system can be better than the
    quality of its teachers. The most successful countries, from the Far East to Scandinavia,
    are those where teaching has the highest status as a profession; South Korea recruits
    from their top 5 per cent of graduates and Finland from the top 10 per cent.”

    I wonder whom wrote that? ( (I certainly know what I personally would see as a funding priority for state education!)

  • Before Lib Dems start trumpeting the gains made by the introduction of the PP I would like to add a point. I teach in the largest school in Liverpool where 2/3’s of our intake qualifies for the extra funding through PP. Our last Ofsted awarded Good with Outstanding features. This morning we had a staff meeting from the Head who stated that other funding coming into the school normally directed at social depravation was being cut and therefore we are under the threat of redundancies in the coming years. This in one of the poorest wards in the country. So, in some cases PP money is new money, but it is not entirely new money, just re diverted to schools under a different name. Not only have students in my school been hit with £9,000 tuition fees thanks to the LD’s, but also the false promise of extra funding to support their education, being simply labelled under another name.

  • David Evershed 16th Jul '14 - 5:28pm

    Teachers in the Far East and Scandinavia who achieve high educational results for children earn a high status.

    Giving teachers high status who produce poor educational results for children is unlikely to improve the results.

    Performance related results is the way forward.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Jul '14 - 6:02pm

    @ David Evershed

    So there we have it – education is simply about results. Eleven years of schooling and the only thing that counts are the number of GCSEs.

    This is not a holistic Liberal Democrat approach. Liberals believe in soft skills and developing potential in areas other than exam results eg: sport, the arts.

    it is tragic that that people like Gove and New Labour have so distorted the language and philosophy of education with their gradgrind obsessions.

    As for PPR – teaching is not a transactional business but a vocation. I doubt you understand this though.

  • “Performance related results”

    I presume you mean “payment by results.”

  • Nigel Cheeseman 16th Jul '14 - 6:30pm

    Charles Rothwell: Indeed, and just a few paragraphs in…”The third lesson of the best education systems is that no country that wishes to be considered world class can afford to allow children from poorer families to fail as a matter of course. For far too long we have tolerated the moral outrage of an accepted correlation between wealth and achievement at school; the soft bigotry of low expectations. Children on free school meals do significantly worse than their peers at every stage of their education. They are just half as likely to get good GCSEs as the average. More children from some private schools go to Oxbridge than from the entire cohort of children on free school meals.”
    This is the reasoning for the pupil premium. I think we’re singing from the same song sheet, just a different verse.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Jul '14 - 7:04pm

    Charles Rothwell – That’s an interesting link, so in the interests of an exchange, try here – particularly p45 and 46.

    This would suggest that the route to follow is to incentivise a smaller and more, ‘classic,’ set of subjects in schools as a route to better performance. Where that would leave agendas for choice, diversity etc is anyone’s guess. I was quite strongly in favour of PP as I like the idea of explicitly targeting resources on those most in need. But more and more I do wonder if PP is the best way of spending the money. There are wider questions, as someone else says, about things like sport, art etc – and for that matter funding them.

    With respect to teachers, quite simply it is a matter of money. At least in the sense that – as Gove almost certainly was starting to discover – the best curricula and exams in the world aren’t much good if all the STEM/Computer Science sorts are heading to high-salary jobs and there’s no one to teach. I don’t know what the answer is there. Unqualified teachers might have a place I suppose, but my feeling is that it’s at best a small niche.

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