The pitfalls of the pupil premium

I’ve been following Professor Becky Allen’s work on the issues surrounding disadvantaged students. Her call for educational reform with regard to the pupil premium in England is hopeful, her messages are clear. Alas with everything in education, often purpose is lost in its translation into policy, but Becky’s voice is one which needs to be listened to. Her talk at this year’s researchED conference spoke an evidence-based truth about how the pupil premium grant, in its current form, is failing disadvantaged students. Why has this happened? What needs to change in both policy and schools? Will there ever be a solution to the achievement gap?

When it was introduced in 2011, the purpose of the pupil premium was to help schools improve the attainment of disadvantaged students. Perhaps here is where it was fundamentally flawed? The notion that an injection of money into schools would address all the factors which impact on a child’s ability to succeed was extremely naive, especially since there was an increasing wealth of evidence that school alone could not solve the problem. It could be argued that pupil premium funding was the government’s attempt at a slight of hand, whilst championing an increase in financial support for the most vulnerable in schools, it was clear that funding was being slashed in other areas of children’s services, especially where wrap-around care such as Sure Start was concerned (highlighted in The Guardian earlier this year). Additionally, the bureaucracy which schools and families would have to go through to achieve the necessary funding would ensure that the process was a lengthy and difficult one (especially in the cases of SEND). Assuming that the reason for the introduction of the pupil premium was an honourable one, where did it wrong?

Policy into practice

In 2011, it was dictat that schools would be given autonomy in how the pupil premium was to be spent in their individual setting. But was it really a case of free will? By nature of the fact that funding had to favour students in receipt of the PPG, choice was somewhat restricted. Furthermore, achievement of disadvantaged students being a key indicator in Ofsted judgement outcomes meant that practices would become distorted along the way, serving league tables rather than children. These factors aside, schools have choice in how the money is spent.

Trying to make a fluid concept (disadvantage) concrete is another fundamental flaw. To clarify, disadvantaged students at one school may look very different from those at another. In fact, every student who would qualify for the grant (and indeed many of those who don’t) would tell you very different stories of what being disadvantaged means to them. In education our obsession with metrics has meant that we need to intervene, collect data and measure impact to prove our worth. Whilst necessity, success looks very different depending on setting and values making the measurement of impact a difficult thing to do.

What is the moral purpose of the pupil premium grant and has this been lost along the way? There have been countless examples where schools have spent thousands of pounds on prize draws to reward PPG students for merely attending school or injecting silly amounts of money into initiatives such as targeted students only revision classes. You may argue that being in school improves achievement (and there’s lots of evidence to support this) but is this alone enough to improve a child’s life chances? What about the academic diet they receive? Are practices like those mentioned really improving long term opportunities for students? Do they teach the right attitudes? Are they instilling the necessay values and disciplines which will lead to sustained success as an adult? Do targeted classes fulfil the ethos of schools being inclusive?

Consider Tommy, he is one of three. His mum is an extremely proud single-parent who works two jobs to provide for her children. She’s never been in receipt of benefits but she’s always living just above the breadline. Tommy’s older sister is in the 6th Form and his younger sister is coming to secondary next September when he’ll be in Year 11. Every week the school’s finance team receive a phone call from mum to request that they move money from Tommy’s elder sister’s account into his, he’s got a voracious appetite so he always over-spends. He doesn’t go on trips because mum can’t afford to send all three of her children – so she sends none. He’s a capable student but very happy-go-lucky and a little lazy, often under achieving in lessons. He’s incredibly compliant and would benefit from extra support, encouragement and resources. Tommy doesn’t meet the criteria to be on any list.

Every school has tens of students like Tommy. When schools group by data alone children like Tommy get missed.

Is the funding failing?

Professor Allen makes a strong case that pupil premium funding has failed to make the necessary gains in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students. She also points out that it’s not the funding itself which is the problem, more the way schools spend it – the key point in my opinion. It’s important to ask ourselves if we removed the accountability measures associated with disadvantage would people admonish their moral responsibility along with it? I will always remain relentlessly hopeful in humanity to do what is right.

Finding a solution

The reality is that we’re never going to close the gap, accepting this is the first step towards finding a way to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. It’s also important to understand that whilst good practice can be shared, what works in one school will not necessarily be the silver bullet in another – no matter how similar they appear to be on paper. However, in all the research I’ve seen where schools are successful in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students the following characteristics are common:

  • A clear vision and purpose driven by the importance of a good education for all
  • Clear communication of this vision to everyone involved and how this looks in the school’s practices
  • A commitment to quality first teaching
  • A focus on improving achievement for all with the understanding that whilst this may not close the gap, there is a relentless drive to ensure that student achievement (both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged) is better than elsewhere
  • Having advocates who know the students in receipt of PPG (and those like Tommy) – someone who can give staff insight into the individual and who monitors students from a distance
  • A team of people who are knowledgeable and are trusted by families

These are the golden threads running throughout the narrative of schools who are improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. There’s a case for the narrowing of the curriculum during the EYFS and KS 1 stages with a focus on literacy to prevent gaps. Perhaps more spending at these stages both within school and with wrap-around care would be a useful place to start?

To say the pupil premium isn’t working is a fair comment to make. I agree that we need to do some things differently but there’s a danger when a salient point becomes a sound bite or when suggestions for improvements become invitations for the removal of resources. When this happens the first to suffer are always society’s most vulnerable. If you want to know what Becky thinks then make sure you read the punchline.

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