Tuesday 30 November 2010

How does a pupil premium + eviction add up?

One of the Coaliton government's key priorities is educational achievement for the most disadvantaged children. Their flagship policy, the pupil premium, is proposed as a potentially transformative policy on social mobility, by spending more money on schools attended by children eligible free school meals. (This is a good policy goal, though the government has been unable to find the funding promised from outside the schools budget; while it may be that the most disadvantaged pupils lose out).

Unfortunately, the education of some of exactly the same students who the pupil premium intends to help will be disrupted and adversely affected by the governments' housing benefit changes.

The DWP highlights the problem in its own impact assessment of the reforms, concisely summarised by Don Paskini on Liberal Conspiracy.

Here's a snippet of the report itself.

Children who experience disruption to their schooling, particularly in the run up to examinations may do less well than pupils who are otherwise similar. It is possible that some families may not wish to move their child from their school of choice, particularly if they are approaching exams or are in a school which has facilities for children with disabilities. There may be scope for local authorities to assist with transport costs to allow children to stay in a school if it is considered in their best interests. However there is an associated financial cost, either to the family or the local authority, plus the added disruption involved with travelling some distance increased and/or dropping children off at school.

The Welsh Assembly Government produced statistics on young people not in education, employment or traning. (NEET). A critical factor contributing to a young person becoming NEET was associated with the family's circumstances and if families moved home frequently, as a result of their tenancy agreement coming to an end. Changes to housing policy could increase the frequency of moves and as such lead to disruption in education leading to NEET issues.

It may prove little consolation to hear that your school is getting some extra 'premium' money to support your education if at the same time your family is evicted as a result of the HB reforms, so forcing a move of boroughs and schools in January 2012, settling in to new classes, new teachers and trying to find new friends - just ahead of sitting GCSEs that Spring.

Letting that happen - so the some of the most disadvantaged children get worse results than they would have done, due to circumstances beyond their control - would surely pull in exactly the opposite direction of what the government is trying to do on educational opportunity and mobility - so I am sure that Nick Clegg, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and their Parliamentary colleagues (all of whom are undoubtedly sincere about wanting to tackle educational disadvantage) will want to think about how to avoid that.

How might they do this?

Here are some questions, which are aimed less at opponents of the government's overall policy, but particularly at those who broadly support the government's policy goals but who are concerned to minimise their social costs, including the disruption to the education of the most disadvantaged children.

* Should government and local authorities take into account the educational impacts of families with dependent children of school age, or should such families be treated in a similar way to all other families and individuals?

* Should government consider exempting all households with children of school age from the implementation of the housing benefit changes, where this would mean having to move boroughs, while the children are of school age? Or could such a policy be applied specifically to children aged 11-16 in secondary schools?

* Alternatively, and more modestly, should the government adopt a policy that no family would be forced to move boroughs while a dependent child is in one of the two years of their GCSE exams? A similar point might be made about A-levels, though the ability to study in a different setting or to travel might be considered different for older children.

This could involve looking, for relevant families, at a range of options, including negotiating down current rent levels and securing alternative and cheaper accomodation near enought the same school, but then avoiding enforcing a move out of borough which made a change of school necessary until the relevant exam period was over.

* Could there be cross-departmental scrutiny - for example by the Education and Housing Select Committees in the Commons - to explore what the educational impacts are, and how much it would cost for the government to protect at least some groups of school age children from having their education disrupted?

Should the government itself be pressed to estimate the cost of mitigating the policy in these or other ways, and also to study and provide evidence of the educational impacts (and knock-on costs) or leaving things as they are?

* Are there other ways in which the government could avoid disruption to the education of disadvantaged children?

The government ought to be pressed to consider and take every reasonable step, and to show that it will go the extra mile to avoid harming the education of the most disadvantaged kids.

The government's move today to delay the introduction of the measures - which is good news, even if primarily about the local elections - does not affect the cases of children who, as in the example given here, will be scheduled to sit exams which could well have a massive impact on their life chances and job opportunities in the year the changes do come in.

I hope the Labour opposition might try to make constructive suggestions about this issue, and propose specific ways in which such disruption can be minimised.

But I would also hope that these could also particularly be good small points of advocacy and pressure for Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbenchers interested in social justice issues, and for liberal and centre-right groups - such as the Social Liberal Forum, ResPublica and the Centre for Social Justice - as well as for civic groups, such as charities involved in children's issues, housing and education. Next Left would be happy to publish ideas and responses from these or other relevant groups, or to hear about any plans to campaign on this issue.

In particular, liberal and centre-right voices might be able to make common cause with Labour voices in asking for a more nuanced policy. I would particularly hope to hear from all those who champion the principles of personalisation - and to oppose a top-down, one-size-fits-all, bureaucratic intervention which does not take account of individual circumstances, about the importance of this government taking that on board in this case.

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