Getting the most out of the pupil premium
Last year, around one in five children left primary school without having reached a sufficient standard in reading and writing. These pupils will struggle to engage with the secondary curriculum and, as a result, will fall even further behind. The job of tackling educational disadvantage would be made much easier if every child started secondary school with a solid foundation in reading and writing.
It is therefore imperative that those children who fall behind in primary or early secondary school receive targeted support to help them catch-up. Targeted support for pupils who are failing to reach a sufficient standard of literacy is a particularly effective way of reducing the achievement gap, because it ensures that help reaches pupils regardless of which school or class they are in.
This approach is at the heart of some world’s top performing school systems, such as Finland, where nearly half of pupils receive some form of catch-up tuition over the course of their school career. It was also the key to success of the Reading Recovery programme in England, which helped to close the attainment gap in primary school literacy.
The government has introduced some new funding streams to help schools fund this sort of programmes. Schools now receive a ‘pupil premium’ of around £600 for every child who is on free school meals. There is also a ‘catch-up premium’ for secondary schools, which is worth up to £500 for every pupil who enters Year 7 below National Curriculum Level 4 in English and maths.
There is a lot that schools can do to maximize the effectiveness of the pupil premium. There is a growing body of research about which interventions are most effective for raising low attainment, and school leaders could draw on this when deciding how to spend their resources. They could also involve staff when deciding how the money should be spent – making sure that all members of staff engage with research about what is effective. School leaders should also make sure that resources are targeted towards pupils early in their school career, rather than using it to help pupils who are near the crucial ‘C/D’ borderline cram for their GCSEs, even if this does help them in league tables.
But ultimately, schools are constrained by the resources they are given. Over the next three years, schools face a cut in their main budget on one hand and an increase in their pupil premium funding on the other. When these two things are taken into account, it becomes clear that majority of schools face a real-terms cut in their funding.
The trouble is that the pupil premium is spread too thinly. It would be better if resources are targeted where they make most difference – and that is in primary and early secondary school. The government should concentrate its planned £1.25bn increase in the pupil premium over the next two years on primary schools and the catch-up premium for secondary schools. Meanwhile, the pupil premium in secondary schools would be held at its current level. This would be tough for secondary school budgets, but in a time of unprecedented government cuts it is necessary to protect those things that are priorities. This move would enable schools to provide effective literacy interventions for pupils aged six to 12, something that has been shown to be very important for raising attainment.
A final problem is that there is some confusion about what the pupil premium is intended to achieve. Policymakers talk interchangeably about the pupil premium being used to support pupils who are falling behind, and it being used to support those who are on free school meals. However, the overlap between these two categories is not as large as many people suppose. According to the Department for Education’s National pupil database, last year, only 23% of low attaining pupils at the end of primary school were eligible for free school meals, and only 26% of pupils eligible for free school meals were low attaining. This puts schools in the difficult position of having to decide whether to spend their pupil premium resources on pupils who have a learning need, even though many of them will not be eligible for free school meals, or whether they should focus them on FSM pupils, even though many of them will be performing at the expected level. I believe that it is the former that should be the priority for schools. Tackling the long tail of low achievement is the biggest challenge facing England’s school system, and it is better for schools to focus resources according to a child’s learning needs.