Friday 19 July 2013

The downside of the pupil premium

Nick Clegg has announced that the pupil premium is rising to £1,300 per pupil per year in primary schools,  which is a major investment in disadvantaged pupils and a powerful attempt to shift the huge privileges that flow the other way.

It is a definite achievement for the Lib Dems in government.  I'm not quibbling about it.  But there is a worry about the pupil premium and it is this.

It has twin objectives.  The first and simplest is that it makes money follow the disadvantaged pupils rather than the other way around.  As long as the schools spend the money effectively - not on huge video screens by the main door as my children's school has - then this has to be an overwhelmingly good thing.

But there is another more subtle objective: to provide some motivation for the good schools to accept pupil premium pupils.

This is important because the basic pattern remains that the better-off tend to congregate in the best performing schools, giving wealthier people a better range of school choices. 

Those more disadvantaged pupils are often excluded from the best schools simply by high house prices in the catchment areas of the better schools, but also because the league tables provide incentives to schools not to take them - they regard them as a risk to their position.  Most pupil premium pupils are in the less successful schools.

The official response is that policy-makers must shift where the capacity exists by getting the best schools to expand, and by replacing the worst. But there is resistance to expanding among the best schools, partly because they don't have the space and don't want to sacrifice their playgrounds or green spaces - quite reasonably.   Nor is it unreasonable if they believe that their human scale is part of the secret of their success.

Because school league tables are so all-important, and pupil premium pupils are a potential challenge to their league place, not even £900 a pupil - the current premium - seems to be a temptation.  The worry is that this money is now pouring overwhelmingly into the less good schools.

So here is the problem.  The pupil premium may provide some of that extra power to disadvantaged applicants, but equally it may encourage the poorer performing schools to expand faster, given that they have far more free school meal pupils. There is a therefore the 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. 

Small, human-scale personalised schools for the wealthy, huge factory schools for the poor.  That is the danger even without the pupil premium, but it also potentially provides the resources to turbo-charge it.

There are already divisions in the state school system.  The danger  is that the resources of the pupil premium may be misused to widen them - just as intense population pressures in some of the poorest areas seriously reduces the choice of schools they have, especially in East London.

When I was carrying out the Barriers to Choice Review for the Cabinet Office, I met one chief education officer (not in London) who has to build a new school every year for ten years just to keep up with a rising population - and with virtually no resources to do so.

Is there an answer?

Not really, but it would be sensible to focus on the core of the problem: the existing league tables discourage schools from taking pupil premium pupils.

One of my proposals was to publish a new league table which shows the performance of all schools with their free school meal pupils, and excluding those schools which accept well below the national average of them. The impact of the 'transformation league table' would depend on it being celebrated, and on providing strategic advantages for those schools which score well.

The Lib Dem education minister David Laws has been focusing attention on the gap between pupil premium pupils and the rest, even in the apparently successful schools, partly as a result of the Review.  So something is happening and the schools are rushing around trying to fix the problem.

But the underlying trend needs to be tackled too.  We don't want to end up with a wider gap between the classes of state schools - small and human for the rich, big and alienating for the poor.


Anonymous said...

There's something you seem to be missing here. Schools are not *free* to spend the pupil premium on what they like. Along side league tables there is also ofsted to consider. I am a school governor and believe me we have not discussed league tables at all in our meetings since I joined. Ofsted on the other hand comes up every time. I should add that Our school is awaiting an inspection.

Now, the law says that every school must publish its policy on how the Pupil Premium is spent and this is on the list of things that Ofsted want to inspect. Whenever the pupil premium is discussed almost the sole angle from which it is considered is 'how do we spend it to best please ofsted'. To be honest I have no idea how Ofsted rate schools on the way they spend the Pupil Premium (except that they don't like it if you use the money to improve the staff : student ratio, which I had previously thought was the whole point), but even if they were the most sophisticated, dynamic and concerned inspection regime ever (which they are not) it wouldn't matter, because we are absolutely terrified of them and will probably act as if there was only one way to please them, so long as it minimizes the risk of our school loosing its 'outstanding' grade.

Nobody is forcing schools like us to this or that with the Pupil Premium, but the system means that we are putting ourselves into a straight jacket, and the more of our funding relies on Pupil Premiums the more this constrains us. What everyone wants is money that can just be spent on what the school needs and for which nobody is going to be held 'accountable'.

David Boyle said...

Thanks so much. That is a very interesting perspective. Of course, I hadn't realised, that money plus controls is more constraining the more dependent on the money you become.