The pupil premium isn’t a quick-fix solution, it’s a long-haul policy

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2012

The pupil premium — additional cash targeted at the most disadvantaged children — is the policy of which Nick Clegg is proudest and with which he is most closely associated. The policy itself dates back to Julian le Grand in the 1980s (when it was touted as a progressive version of school vouchers) but it was Nick who put it firmly in the political mainstream as long ago as 2002 in a pamphlet he co-wrote based on experiences of it working within continental Europe.

Though the Tories nominally signed-up to the concept of a pupil premium in their 2010 manifesto, they didn’t back it up with additional cash. It was the Lib Dems — and Clegg and David Laws in particular — who pushed for significant extra resource to be found even at a time of national austerity, and ensured it was written into the Coalition Agreement.

As a result £1.25bn has already been distributed to schools to spend specifically on children eligible for free school meals (ie, from households where income is at or below c.£16k). This will grow throughout the five-year parliament so that, by 2014-15, some 7,000 schools — getting on for one-third of all state primary and secondary schools — will each be in receipt of more than £100,000 of pupil premium cash. This really isn’t pocket money.

The short-term problems with the pupil premium

But there is a big problem with the pupil premium. In fact two big problems.

First, it’s being introduced at a time when schools budgets are being squeezed. This means there’s a real and understandable temptation for schools to roll it into the general budget rather than to use it for the purpose it was created for: helping the poorest kids to catch up with their better-off peers.

Secondly, because the Coalition took the deliberate decision not to ring-fence the cash but to allow schools to decide for themselves how to spend it there was always a real risk that some schools would spend the cash ineffectively. That risk has materialised as today’s report from Ofsted highlights:

Of 117 head teachers surveyed, only 10%, all of whom led schools in deprived areas, said the extra cash from the pupil premium had “significantly” changed the way they worked, the schools watchdog found. Half of the schools surveyed thought the pupil premium was having a positive impact on raising achievement, but few could provide evidence to back this up.

This backs up earlier reports from my day-job colleagues at social mobility charity The Sutton Trust which also showed that ‘little of the £1.25 billion allocated through the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged children in England in 2012-13 will be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment’.

Some will use this as evidence that the pupil premium has failed, that the Government should have ring-fenced the spending and directed it towards ‘best bets’ likely to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor. I understand the argument, but I think it is profoundly wrong-headed.

The long-term rewards of the pupil premium

It is right that schools have greater say in how they spend their money and that they take responsibility for those spending decisions. This is founded on the liberal principle of trusting those closest to the ground to make their own decisions. And it is founded on the practical outcome of that principle: that it is only by trusting those closest to the ground to make their own decision that you can achieve sustainable improvement. The more that is centrally directed by civil servants in Whitehall the more you undermine the professionalism of those who will need to make policies work in reality.

Centralisers (though they are never honest enough to call themselves that) always argue that their way is more efficient. In the short-term, that may be true — though central government’s record on that is, shall we say, patchy. But medium- and long-term you simply cannot micro-direct schools and then expect teachers to have the confidence to use the evidence of what works and adapt it to their own ways of working in their own local circumstances.

The Lib Dems and the Coalition need to resist the temptation to look for quick-fix levers to pull. A compliance culture must always seem attractive to politicians working to election cycles, desperate to show their policy has delivered immediate results. But real, enduring change takes longer, and needs the collaboration of both policy-makers and those delivering public services. The pupil premium is an important part of that approach, providing schools with the resources they need to make changes that can improve the lives of the children who need it most. But it’s going to take time to make a real difference.

For the record: I work for the Education Endowment Foundation, a grant-making charity dedicated to raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in English primary and secondary schools, but I’m writing here in a personal capacity.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.