Conor Ryan asks whether the Government is making the most of the pupil premium.
Most schools face standstill budgets, or real terms cuts. But some of the school budget is growing, and will grow further. The pupil premium, worth £600 this year, rises to £900 next year and could reach £1200 per pupil by 2015. The challenge for schools is how to use that money where it will have most impact – and there is a case for incentivising effective practice.
The pupil premium was part of both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos. It had two important roles: firstly, to narrow the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their classmates, and secondly, to encourage successful schools to take more disadvantaged pupils.
Previous governments have provided extra resources for such pupils through extra funding to local authorities with high levels of poverty. Nevertheless, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that pre-premium extra funding in the system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools. And that has had variable impact.
But this is the first grant paid to schools for each disadvantaged pupil, regardless of where the school is located. The Government decided against ring-fencing the premium, relying instead on schools publishing details of spending on their websites and extra league table measures.
But there is mounting evidence that the premium is not being used as intended (nor is there any evidence that is changing admissions behaviour). Ofsted reported last month that often schools did not disaggregate the pupil premium from their main budget, and said that the funding was often used to maintain or enhance existing provision.
The National Foundation for Education Research, in a survey of 1700 teachers in 1200 English schools for the Sutton Trust earlier this year, showed that little of the pupil premium allocation for 2012-13 – a sum worth £1.25 billion in total – was likely to be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment. Many would spend it on staff rather than improving teaching.
But there is evidence of the most cost effective approaches to improving standards. Researchers at Durham University assessed 21 different interventions for both impact on attainment and relative cost and helped the Sutton Trust to create a toolkit which a growing number of schools are using priorities for the premium. The toolkit will be updated and expanded by our sister organisation, the Education Endowment Foundation, in 2013.
The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there are three strategies that schools can undertake with a high impact at relatively low cost. Using evidence from here and abroad, they calculate that each of these strategies can provide the equivalent of between six and nine months extra learning, at a cost of around £170 per pupil.
The single most effective strategy is improved pupil feedback, which should be an important part of a school’s drive to boost the quality of teaching and learning. Other low cost proven methods include teaching pupils to learn effectively and peer tutoring, where young people help each other to learn.
Of course, a growing number of schools are already turning to the Toolkit for ideas, and a new version will be online early next year. However, there is surely a case for the Government to help give proven ideas a further boost.
As the size of the pupil premium pot grows, why not use some of it to match fund schools’ spending on proven strategies? It is not as if the Government is opposed to ring-fencing any of the premium; Nick Clegg has used it to fund summer catch-up schools.
So, why not have a pot which schools where schools could double a proportion of their premium provided they spent it on a menu of proven activities? With a little extra incentive, ministers might find that the pupil premium went a lot further.