Pupil premium: confusion is added to the mix

The pupil premium, the coalition’s flagship education policy – £430 for each child on free school meals, raises a tricky question for schools: what should the money be spent on?

Let us put aside, for the moment, the question about whether the size of the pupil premium is anywhere near sufficient to address educational inequalities. Let us assume that a school receiving their cash trickles it down to the child concerned, rather than chucking it in the pot along with everything else, used to cover spending cuts elsewhere. Let us pretend we have arrived at this point where schools are faced with the nub of the issue: what will make a difference?

The policy wonks – or, in this case it seem to be a wonk, singular – at the Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) have drawn attention to this key question with an article here.

While they are of course right – in a state-the-bloomin’-obvious kind of way – to make the point that funding of any kind is wasted if it is not spent effectively, it is their proposals for what to do with the cash which catch the eye. And not, unfortunately, for the right reasons.

They have argued, for instance, in the article above and also here, that there is a lack of accountability with how the money is spent and, to address this, schools should have to agree with a child’s parents how the money should be spent.

While accountability may be a problem, the solution suggests more of a bureaucratic process – a letter sent home, I imagine – than anything like a genuine engagement with the child’s needs. Yet if ‘agreement’ involves a thorough process of discussion and consultation, this arrangement would become impractical – how many hours would this take, in a school with 10-15% of their roll on free school meals?

Not much food for thought from IPPR so far.

Added to this, though, the think-tank has selected three areas that schools should ‘prioritise’ when spending the premium: reading catch-up programmes; family support workers to link home and school; and an increase in formative assessment in schools.

At first glance, it does seem odd for a think-tank to be telling teachers what to do in such a precise way. I wonder if they also advise Doctors on how to treat patients?

Also, it begs the question how the list was generated. At one level it’s pointless: why, for example, should reading be ‘prioritised’ if the child is behind with Maths?

And why have they picked out ‘formative assessment’? As good a method as it is in terms of accelerating progress, formative assessment is about an approach to teaching and learning in the classroom – it’s not something you do ‘to’ a particular, individual child.

More to the point, it doesn’t cost anything (beyond going to Amazon and buying a book called ‘Inside the Black Box’) and has already been the subject of much attention in schools.

Given their enthusiasm for accountability, if you made the case for formative assessment, you would be hard pushed to explain to a parent (or anyone else) that the £430 has been spent on helping little Johnny or Joanna any more than it has helped anyone and everyone in the class. What, exactly, are they proposing the money is spent on? A muddled idea, this one.

However, with the idea of family support, IPPR may be on to something. The missing link in terms of narrowing the gap between rich and poor is often an effective relationship (in terms of learning) between parent, school and child is vital. To make the difference, schools may need to up their game – but some parents may have to as well. And, with this, a bit of support, guidance and encouragement may make all the difference.

What IPPR’s list does reveal is just how difficult it is to decide how to spend the cash, and the challenges for schools and individual teachers when trying to make informed decisions.

It seems, at this moment in time, the pupil premium may fail on three counts. First of all, it’s not enough. Second, it’s not, in fact, a premium. And, third, whatever cash does find its way to schools under the brand name ‘pupil premium’, may well be lost in a mix of confusion and cuts.


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Filed under Policy, Schools

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