Monday 29 April 2013

Why we need a pupil premium league table

Bated breath isn't quite the right description, but I am patiently waiting for the government's official response to the so-called Boyle Review, the independent review I led into barriers to choice in public services.

More on that later (I hope).

But one of the areas I looked at in the review, and returned to in my new book Broke, is the difficulties parents have getting the information they want from school league tables.

The problem with league tables and targets is that they tell you a great deal about how institutions conform to what the government wants, and not much about the things that might interest you - in this case, bullying, atmosphere, creativity, friendliness.

There is also scepticism about the official data in education, both among parents and professionals.  People can see, from their own experience, that league tables can be manipulated by schools – to the extent that schools higher in the league tables may be there partly because they have taught too closely to the tests, perhaps at the expense of a more rounded education.

There is also a difficulty about pupil premium pupils, because the efforts each school makes to help them improve gets lost in their overall league table position.  And it was this that I focused on, and news a few days ago shows that Lib Dem education minister David Laws is also thinking along these lines.  I don't know if this is because of my report, and don't really mind: I'm glad he is.

The pupil premium is a Lib Dem idea and it is supposed to work in two ways - by providing extra money which schools can spend on the pupils who need it most, and by encouraging good schools to take on more pupil premium (free school meal) pupils.

The practical problem with the second of these is that league tables get in the way.  Schools are now able to change their admissions policies to include more free school meal pupils, but have no real incentive apart from the value of the pupil premium to compensate them for the extra cost - and the danger to their league table positions. 

The pupil premium may provide some of that extra power to disadvantaged applicants; equally it may encourage the poorer performing schools to expand faster, given that they have more free school meal pupils.  They get the bulk of the resources.

So there is a danger of a gulf opening up between successful, smaller schools and the increasingly large-scale institutions that cater for the rest of the population, which can give that much less individual attention.  The true believers in competition believe that the good schools must expand, but the truth is that there are so many constrains on this that it would be silly to rely on it happening.

My answer is that there needs to be a league table specifically to show the performance of pupil premium pupils.  To make this visible, you have to challenge the false 'bottom line' given by the existing league tables.  Otherwise the position on the old league tables is an extremely powerful counter-pressure on schools not to risk varying the social balance of their intake. 

Now, I've no idea whether this is what led David Laws to the rather shocking discovery that he made, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

There is a 25 percentage point gap between the achievements of pupil premium pupils and the rest.  There may be socio-economic reasons for this, though I doubt it.  But what is absolutely indefensible is that the gap is often wider in the wealthier areas than it is in the poorer areas.  Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Surrey, Hampshire all have much wider gaps.

So I'm glad that Laws will be writing to specific schools to ask where they are spending their pupil premium money, and has promised that a big gap between rich and poor will threaten 'outstanding' status.  I hope he will also do what I suggested, and launch a parallel league table just for pupil premium pupils.

Because the best way to challenge over-powerful and rather unhelpful bottom lines is to challenge them with other perspectives.

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