Pupil Premium: is it working? Probably – but it’s not a quick-fix solution

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2014

The Pupil Premium – money targeted at children from low-income households – is the Lib Dems’ flagship education policy. By the end of the Parliament, it will be worth £2.5 billion, cash given directly to schools to spend as they wish on improving attainment outcomes.

Is it working? That’s the question being asked, given the news that the attainment gap at age 16 – the difference between GCSE results achieved by pupils eligible for free school meals and all other pupils – increased very slightly last year. In fact, results for both low-income pupils and all other pupils improved; but all other pupils improved a little faster, so the gap rose from 26.3% to 26.7%.

The news has been pounced upon by newspapers on the left (The Guardian: “The findings will come as a blow to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg”) and right (Daily Mail: “Nick Clegg’s £2.5billion pupil premium has failed to narrow the gap between the achievements of the poorest schoolchildren and their wealthier counterparts”) to declare the Pupil Premium a failure.

Well, let’s take a look at the evidence. First, here’s a graph showing the attainment gap for pupils aged 16:

attainment aged 16

That shows how stubborn the attainment gap is to shift. But, then, is it that surprising? The pupils whose results we’re looking at (those who took GCSEs in 2013) received two years’ Pupil Premium funding, worth a little over £1,000 each. It was unlikely to be a game-changing amount that late in most pupils’ schooling.

Let’s look, though, at the attainment gap for younger pupils, those aged 11:

attainment aged 11

This is a more hopeful picture: the fall in the attainment gap (down from 20% to 16.8%) in the first year of Pupil Premium funding was significant. This is, of course, just one year’s data. It will be important to see if such a narrowing in the attainment gap can be sustained. But the progress at primary school is a counter-balance to those rushing to write-off the Pupil Premium as a failure.

It makes sense, of course, that Pupil Premium money spent on younger children is more likely to have an impact. Better to try and stop children from falling behind, rather than trying to catch them up later on.

Interestingly, the Coalition has responded to this early evidence, skewing Pupil Premium funding towards primary age children. From September, schools will receive an additional £1,300 for each primary school pupil from a low-income background, whereas secondary schools will receive £935. Of course, money in itself is not the answer – it isn’t how much is spent but how effectively it’s spent.

As I wrote in December 2012, when warning against an expectation that the Pupil Premium is a quick-fix, politicians need to avoid panic meddling. If the Pupil Premium is to work – and it will, I think, in time – then we need to recognise that this a long-haul policy:

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.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.