What I asked Nick in today’s #Clegginar about the ‘pupil premium’

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2012

I’ve just finished participating in a web-chat with Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, the latest in a series of #Clegginars (yes, that is the Twitter hashtag) open to all party members.

Nick was in good, relaxed form (sipping water, munching Polos) — more importantly, he came across as honest, un-spun and informed about the Queen’s Speech and what it means for the Lib Dems. In general, the Queen’s Speech — much like the last Budget, in fact — was pretty good for the Lib Dems, with substantial progress on reforms of the banking sector, House of Lords, and pensions. (Though I don’t resile from my view that the Coalition is in real danger of losing its radical edge.)

I took the opportunity to ask Nick about one of the party’s top four priorities at the last general election: the ‘pupil premium’, money targeting children from the most deprived backgrounds intended to lift their academic performance. Here’s my question:

The pupil premium is, I know, a passion of Nick’s and he’s long championed it. However, educational benefits for the poorest children don’t always happen overnight. How does Nick think Lib Dems can stick up for the policy while resisting the pressure for instant solutions to these very complex issues of poverty and social mobility?

I’ve written in praise of the pupil premium before — while also noting its inherent danger for the party:

The Lib Dems, courageously, have said this money is not to be centrally directed: schools are free to spend it on those measures they think will boost the attainment levels of the poorest children in their specific context. Which is great liberal theory — but, as we’ve seen above, existing resources are not always well-spent so there is a good chance these additional resources might also miss the mark. How will the government — how will we as taxpayers — know if the ‘pupil premium’ has actually improved the educational life chances of the most disadvantaged; or will it simply have been absorbed into the general school budget to mop up pay-inflation increases, or repair the faulty boiler?

It’s a worry that I know is felt by Lib Dems, anxious that Labour is going to attack the pupil premium as ineffective unless quick results can be shown, and use that as an excuse to ring-fence the money in ways central government thinks will work and in the process undermine local schools. However, the expectation of ‘quick wins’ is a problem if the Lib Dems are genuinely interested in finding out what works in raising attainment among the poorest pupils: quite simply, it takes time to find out which educational interventions have a real and enduring impact.

What was Nick’s reply?

Well, in part he rehearsed his very clearly passionate belief in the pupil premium — he did after all write a pamphlet extolling it a decade ago — and he also referred me to a speech he’s making this Monday, which will apparently include examples of successes of the pupil premium to date around illiteracy and the difficulty in transitioning children from primary to secondary school.

Here’s how I summarised his answer in tweets: