The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

Pupil premium: is it making a difference?

While pupil premium funding was introduced with the good intention of helping schools narrow the attainment gap, its future looks increasingly uncertain.

In April 2011, the coalition government introduced the pupil premium and the service premium. This injected an additional £625 million of funding to help schools close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils and to assist with the pastoral needs of forces children. It was flagged as new money at (another) time when schools were cash-strapped.

However, those of us in headship at the time will remember that, rather than being new money, the pupil premium was more a redistribution of what had been known as the Standards Fund. What had really changed were the rules about how the money could be spent.

Total pupil premium funding has increased year on year. Loudly though successive governments have proclaimed it, this is hardly a surprise since pupil numbers have increased and inflation has risen (albeit slowly). The government originally promised that the pot would rise to £2.545 billion in 2015–16 but, in fact, according to the most recent Commons briefing paper on the subject, it had risen only to £2.4 billion in 2017–18.

For better or worse?

In 2013 the DfE published an independent review of the initiative. This was carried out by a panel of academics. However, despite being two years into the pupil premium, the review looked only at the acquisition and deployment of funding. Hidden in the report is the rather disconcerting statement that:

'It is too early to measure the impacts of the Pupil Premium on attainment, and this evaluation only aimed to look at schools’ perceptions of the Pupil Premium, and how it has influenced the support provided to pupils. However, almost all schools surveyed (95% or more) were monitoring the impact of the support they were providing for the pupils they targeted.'

Interestingly, the report notes that most schools saw the impact of the fund through the lens of additional staff appointments, notably the employment of additional teaching assistants. And this came a year after the publication of the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which suggested that TAs were an ineffective strategy because they were high-cost, low impact! This appears to have passed by the review panel’s attention.

The Sutton Trust and its government-funded extension, the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), seem to offer a more reliable and in-depth monitoring of the pupil premium. Its 2015 review noted, somewhat worryingly:

'At first glance, things do not seem to be getting much better: the headline gap between the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and maths, for non-pupil premium and pupil premium children is barely closing (it was 26.4 and 26.2 percentage points in 2011 and 2014, respectively). However, this is a relatively poor measure for monitoring the gap since it ignores many improvements.'

This review carries an important message: that schools should 'concentrate on better results for pupil premium children, rather than narrowing the gap.' It makes the point that pupil premium money is actually improving the life chances of disadvantaged pupils.

'What matters to children from low-income families is that a school enables them to achieve a qualification to get on in life. If a low-income student gets a poor education from a school, it is little consolation or use for them to learn that the school served the higher income students equally poorly (the school’s "gap’" was small).'

Schools should concentrate on better results for pupil premium children, rather than narrowing the gap

This message appears to have been ignored by Ofsted. The chief inspector reported that ‘a common factor in the schools that do not improve to good or outstanding is that they have a higher proportion of deprived pupils’, which misses the point made by Sutton Trust. The report goes on to point out that, in a third of schools that required improvement in 2015–16, the inspector recommended a review of the way the pupil premium was spent.

In 2017, the Education Policy Institute reported that:

'Disadvantaged pupils, on average, do not perform as well in school as their non-disadvantaged peers. Although there has been a greater focus on improving attainment in schools, the link between social demography and educational destiny has not been broken.'

Perhaps schools are caught up in an inescapable net, its warp defined by the desire to improve disadvantaged pupils’ life chances and its weft by the fear of being found wanting by an inspection system that, for all its expressed desires, is rooted in their progress and attainment. No wonder it is creaking with strain.

'The pupil premium isn't working'

For the past few years several commentators have suggested that the pupil premium is not working, and cited precisely the aforementioned dichotomy. They have questioned the basis for allocating funding, they have railed against the premium being a top-up against the strictures of austerity and they have consistently resisted being judged against a measure that lacks integrity.

At the September meeting of ResearchEd, Professor Becky Allen (@profbeckyallen), director of the Education Datalab, gave a talk entitled 'The pupil premium isn't working'. She suggests that, on the contrary, 'it diverts the education system away from things that might work somewhat better.'

She has since outlined her case in a series of blog posts, where her arguments summarise the problems that have been inherent in the pupil premium from the beginning. She suggests that, with their onerous expenditure and reporting requirements, schools cannot focus on the real needs.

It is helpful to all of us dealing with the pupil premium to be aware of the points she makes.

  • The pupil premium does not target our lowest income students.
  • Poverty is a poor proxy for educational and social disadvantage.
  • Pupil premium students do not have homogeneous needs.
  • A school’s gap depends on its non-PP demographic.
  • Tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level.
  • It isn’t possible for a school to conduct the impact analysis required by DfE and Ofsted to ‘prove’ that their pupil premium strategy is working.
  • Reporting requirements drive short-term, interventionist behaviour.
  • It is doubtful whether within-classroom inequalities can ever be closed.
  • Schools are better off focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status.

This last point is important in the light of the wider direction of education thinking. It cannot be ignored that current training of Ofsted inspectors is pointing towards the whole cognitive function agenda and strategies such as dialogic teaching.

In May 2018, the then-new secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds told the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) that he wants 'us, together, to narrow the gap for the places left behind and provide better opportunities for the children who have the hardest start in life.' Which appears to repeat an old mantra. 

However, Professor Allen, as chair of the workload advisory group, has the ear of the DfE and it is to be hoped that, rather than being regarded as heresy, her perspective on the pupil premium might prove to influence future policy.

Further reading and resources

Pupil premium toolkit: four steps to success

Pupil premium accountability: how to embed positive discrimination

Pupil premium audit templates

Disadvantage: looking beyond the pupil premium

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