The pupil premium isn’t a quick-fix solution, it’s a long-haul policy

The pupil premium — additional cash targeted at the most disadvantaged children — is the policy of which Nick Clegg is proudest and with which he is most closely associated. The policy itself dates back to Julian le Grand in the 1980s (when it was touted as a progressive version of school vouchers) but it was Nick who put it firmly in the political mainstream as long ago as 2002 in a pamphlet he co-wrote based on experiences of it working within continental Europe.

Though the Tories nominally signed-up to the concept of a pupil premium in their 2010 manifesto, they didn’t back it up with additional cash. It was the Lib Dems — and Clegg and David Laws in particular — who pushed for significant extra resource to be found even at a time of national austerity, and ensured it was written into the Coalition Agreement.

As a result £1.25bn has already been distributed to schools to spend specifically on children eligible for free school meals (ie, from households where income is at or below c.£16k). This will grow throughout the five-year parliament so that, by 2014-15, some 7,000 schools — getting on for one-third of all state primary and secondary schools — will each be in receipt of more than £100,000 of pupil premium cash. This really isn’t pocket money.

The short-term problems with the pupil premium

But there is a big problem with the pupil premium. In fact two big problems.

First, it’s being introduced at a time when schools budgets are being squeezed. This means there’s a real and understandable temptation for schools to roll it into the general budget rather than to use it for the purpose it was created for: helping the poorest kids to catch up with their better-off peers.

Secondly, because the Coalition took the deliberate decision not to ring-fence the cash but to allow schools to decide for themselves how to spend it there was always a real risk that some schools would spend the cash ineffectively. That risk has materialised as today’s report from Ofsted highlights:

Of 117 head teachers surveyed, only 10%, all of whom led schools in deprived areas, said the extra cash from the pupil premium had “significantly” changed the way they worked, the schools watchdog found. Half of the schools surveyed thought the pupil premium was having a positive impact on raising achievement, but few could provide evidence to back this up.

This backs up earlier reports from my day-job colleagues at social mobility charity The Sutton Trust which also showed that ‘little of the £1.25 billion allocated through the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged children in England in 2012-13 will be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment’.

Some will use this as evidence that the pupil premium has failed, that the Government should have ring-fenced the spending and directed it towards ‘best bets’ likely to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor. I understand the argument, but I think it is profoundly wrong-headed.

The long-term rewards of the pupil premium

It is right that schools have greater say in how they spend their money and that they take responsibility for those spending decisions. This is founded on the liberal principle of trusting those closest to the ground to make their own decisions. And it is founded on the practical outcome of that principle: that it is only by trusting those closest to the ground to make their own decision that you can achieve sustainable improvement. The more that is centrally directed by civil servants in Whitehall the more you undermine the professionalism of those who will need to make policies work in reality.

Centralisers (though they are never honest enough to call themselves that) always argue that their way is more efficient. In the short-term, that may be true — though central government’s record on that is, shall we say, patchy. But medium- and long-term you simply cannot micro-direct schools and then expect teachers to have the confidence to use the evidence of what works and adapt it to their own ways of working in their own local circumstances.

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.

For the record: I work for the Education Endowment Foundation, a grant-making charity dedicated to raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in English primary and secondary schools, but I’m writing here 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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  • Sorry Stephen but your piece is contradictory. You say that Clegg and Laws pushed for significant additional resource, yet then go on to talk about Schools having Squeezed budgets. This is the problem with the Pupil Premium, if it is not additional money, and true additional money not a softening of a real terms cut, the it risks not achieving the success the idea deserves.

    It is a great idea, we can argue it has been introduced in poor economic circumstances, but we shouldn’t try to perpetuate a myth of additional funds. This will give its detractors chance to say it hasn’t worked as well as supporters claimed it would and leave it open to being scrapped by a future government.

  • I think we should be careful about expecting too much from the Pupil Premium. If you look at the amount spent per pupil at each school and the percentage of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs, there is actually a negative correlation between the two i.e. schools where spending was higher per pupil actually show worse performance on average.

    Clearly, given this evidence, performance is not linked to money. So what is it affected by? I believe two things: the methods of teaching within the schools and secondly – and more importantly – the culture outside the schools in the communities they serve. If families don’t value learning, the children won’t learn. Surely some of this Pupil Premium money should be spent outside the school in persuading families to value their child’s education and support the work being done by the schools.

  • I don’t think it’s micro-directing to set about schools which are using this money on maternity pay or landscaping the playground.

  • The whole point of the pupil premium is to give those children disadvantaged by poverty extra INDIVIDUAL help. It is indicative of this government that the rules were not laid down with enough rigour to prevent schools using the extra money other than what it was meant for. It is indicative of this governments cuts that so many schools feel the need to divert the premium away from the pupils it was intended to help and into other budgets

  • Yes, not having the pupil premium ring-fenced can mean that monies are spent on non-targeted things, it also can mean that a school can maintain teaching provision and make allowances, for example, breakfast ‘club’, school trips.

    What this can mean, and has meant in some schools in my area is that schools have been able to maintain teaching standards so that better off parents don’t take their children to other schools so avoid becoming a ‘ghetto’ and that disadvantaged children get to do all the things the other children do and in some cases actually do well as they have had breakfast (and lunch).

    Yes this is not perfect however it is a start , perhaps what is needed is for schools to report how they spent the pupil premium as part of their annual accounts. Such publication would encourage schools to at least review how they are spending the monies.

    Aside: I note that in Nick’s 2002 ‘pamphlet’/working paper, he makes much of the virtues of decentralisation. I’d like to know how he squares this with his current centralised policy initatives (eg. eBacc, single exam boards per subject).

  • Tony Dawson 20th Sep '12 - 7:51pm

    I heard the head of OFSTED on the TV this morning, saying that essentially the pupil premium has been almost totally ineffective for the past two years. He is demanding close monitoring of it being spent on policies specific to the target audience which is what I have called, for here and elsewhere, for over a year.

    If done properly, this policy would not only be good for education and good for Britain, it might even have a small political ‘fillip’ for its authors. Unfortunately, the effects of other policies upon that same target group of disadvantaged families appears likely to offset this.

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Sep '12 - 9:37pm

    “This is founded on the liberal principle of trusting those closest to the ground to make their own decisions.”

    This is what happens when a decent principle is elevated to the level of inviolable ideology. The government is putting principle before a pragmatic approach to the evidence; this is seldom a good idea.

    You present a phoney conflict between “centralism” and “localism”. In most areas of policy – and absolutely in this one – the best approach would actually be something between the two. Yes, on a day to day basis local headteachers are best placed (though not necessarily best able) to decide where the money should be spent. But headteachers are variable in quality and motivation, and it is absolutely essential that central government applies some kind of rigorous checks to ensure the money is used for the purpose intended. Otherwise, the pupil premium becomes a futile exercise in simply throwing money in the general vicinity of a problem and hoping a little of it sticks.

    There is a lot to be said for localism – but sometimes local agencies can benefit from a little help (or, if necessary, a little prodding) from the centre. Today’s Ofsted report shows all too clearly what the limitations of localism are.

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