Friday, 15 October 2010

Two cheers for the pupil premium

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to get onto the front foot this morning, announcing details of the Coalition's plans for a "pupil premium" to increase the resources spent on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This is a good idea, which deserves support.

Though all is not necessarily precisely as presented.

Firstly, the "premium" idea or policy is not an entirely new one, though it is being packaged as new. As Polly Curtis reported for the Guardian earlier this week, the Coalition's new plan in fact involves increasing the resources to the existing schemes to increase funding per pupil for those on Free School Meals.

Gove is understood to have settled the method of paying the premium: in the short term, it will use the existing system of allocating extra money to children receiving free school meals. But more money will be granted to some schools, to iron out regional disparities.

Increasing the existing premiums further is a good idea.

Secondly, funding. How much? And where is the cash coming from and going?

The newspapers have been briefed about £5 billion to £7 billion, by counting the next three to four years cumulatively. As Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis tweeted before his interview with Clegg this morning:

They (and we) are calling it £7 billion. But that is over four years. I call that 1.5 to 2 billion a year ... Didn't Gordon Brown get some stick for cumulating spending totals over several years?

Nick Clegg quickly acknowledged this in his interview, saying the £1.5 - £2 billion increase would rise to £2.5 billion in the final year.

That's real money, suggesting the effort to overspin it is an unnecessarily contentious distraction.

Where the cash is coming from remains initially unclear, beyond that the funding will come partly from shifting resources within the (shrinking) DfES budget and partly from outside it. The balance of the sources of funding is to be revealed later. The Guardian reported too that some of the DFES resources will come from cutting central funding for youth clubs, after-school music, art and child safety projects.

A new development outlined by LibDemVoice this morning, and not previously mooted before this week's student fees u-turn,is "a new form of student premium" to be part of the premium policy. This does bear the hallmarks of making policy on the back of the envelope, so it may be some time before we know clear whether the resources for this are coming from the university funding reform, or whether this is now part of the previous "pupil premium" package (which was always expected to be at around the levels announced today for the schools, but not universities, element).

Nick Clegg said this morning that of course he did not deny making the student fee pledge but that "having looked at it" he now realised that a focus on social mobility depended on prioritising earlier investments in life chances. It is hard to believe he has not been aware of the evidence for that proposition for several years, but it does imply that he should oppose cutting back on the schools policy.


Thirdly, the overall impact on educational inequality

The government needs to ensure that the pupil premium is more than a headline soundbite. It needs to be part of a coherent educational strategy which improves educational outcomes generally, including a core focus on narrowing the attainment gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

The central issue in deciding whether the overall educational strategy - and the range of other policy interventions which significantly affect education outcomes - will narrow or exacerbate existing educational inequalities is whether other policy choices pull in the same direction as the pupil premium, or go against it.

This was the focus of the recent Fabian/Webb Memorial Trust report "What's fair? Applying the fairness test to education" (full PDF available online), which offered an analysis of the record the Labour government, as well as the challenges for the Coalition which has committed to the goal of narrowing the attainment gap. (Guardian summary).

One of the most contentious current issues is the free schools policy. Michael Gove is evangelical about this being a driver for greater social mobility. Nick Clegg and Sarah Teather also argue that this will reinforce the pupil premium.

The majority of LibDem party opinion takes the opposite view, beign concerned that the risk that the policy will exacerbate inequalities may be greater than its potential to reduce them. At the moment, the weight of evidence appears to be with Clegg's critics.

Free schools in Sweden have certainly not been as successful as their advocates hoped. The Swedish version of Ofsted suggests they have not driven up standards, and have been more likely to increase segregation than to reduce it.

Closer to home, the early evidence is that the Coalition's new academies are more likely to be focused on relatively advantaged rather than relatively disadvantaged pupils, in contrast to the academies created by the last Labour government.

As the Fabian report set out "The proposal to turn schools rated outstanding into academies – if they request it – will be "bound to benefit a far greater proportion of less disadvantaged schools, since only a small proportion of schools recently judged as outstanding can be categorised as having a disadvantaged intake".

If there is a shift of resources to these schools, it will therefore tend to pull against the impact of the pupil premium, rather than reinforcing it.

As important are non-education policies which could have a significant impact on the school outcomes of those who the pupil premium is designed to help.

For example, I would highlight the unintended educational consequences of some of the proposed housing benefit changes - in particular, the crude and one-size-fits-all proposal to reduce benefit levels by 10% after 12 months, regardless of personal or family circumstances. Simon Hughes and Boris Johnson have joined the Labour party in expressing serious concerns about the social impacts of these proposals.

Many families affected by this rule are likely to have to move homes - perhaps tens of thousands of people - and this will often involve school age children having to move schools as a result. Where that happens, it would seriously disrupt the educational chances of an already disadvantaged group who Clegg's pupil premium is designed to help.

So Clegg, Gove and Teather ought to ensure there is a good, independent study of the possible impact on educational attainment and inequalities of the housing benefit proposals.

Given the government's commitment to narrowing the attainment gap in schools, as demonstrated by the pupil premium, it should also give serious thought to not applying that policy to households with school-age children who would otherwise have to move homes and schools. The principle of the pupil premium certainly demands that the government demonstrates that it has put in place robust plans to avoid the potentially positive impact being badly outweighed by the impact of other policies.


If they were to ensure that the educational inequality goal does inform relevant policies in education and beyond, then the pupil premium would be worth three cheers from all sides of the political spectrum.

This morning, we will have to confine ourselves to a more cautious two.

1 comment:

Stuart White said...

Sunder: Nick Clegg has certainly long been aware of the evidence about the importance of early years educational intervention - I think it was this evidence which he and others used for a while to rationalise abolishing the Child Trust Fund in favour of extra spending on schools.