Where now for the pupil premium?

Robin Richardson

Children living in low-income households, reports Ofsted, are not benefiting from one of the Imagecoalition government’s flagship education policies, the pupil premium. Since the government itself requested Ofsted to look into the matter it’s probable the report will lead to changes in the ways the premium is used, and not used. It’s relevant in this regard to note that the recent Cabinet reshuffle has given David Laws a high-profile responsibility for ensuring the premium’s success.

The pupil premium, explained Laws in an article shortly after the 2010 election, is designed to have two beneficial effects: it will ensure deprivation funding is better targeted than hitherto and will go to schools with the highest levels of challenge.

In language clearly reminiscent of utterances from his Tory partners, Laws said ‘this government should not dictate to each school precisely how it should use the pupil premium – the coalition is moving away from Labour’s obsession with micro-management’.

Setting up false dichotomies is a familiar rhetorical device, much used by politicians in all parties.  The effect of the false dichotomy proposed by Laws – either freedom or micro-management – was that necessary but painful and divisive conversations were discouraged or prevented. Why do inequalities in our society persist? Why, after nearly 150 years of compulsory education, do inequalities in wider society continue to be so starkly reflected by inequalities in educational outcomes? What evidence is there that schools know how to reduce inequalities?

Since such questions have not been addressed, it is not at all surprising that the pupil premium has so far been a disaster.

Laws did admit ‘there should be clear advice and support available to schools so that best practice in using the premium can be spread’ and that schools ‘must be held to account’. But it was almost two years before the government got round to decreeing that schools should publish information online about how they use the pupil premium, and that Ofsted announced this would be subject to scrutiny. And it is still the case that advice and support from the government are sketchy and vague in the extreme, for example ‘encourage parents to stimulate and/or motivate their children to achieve their aspirations’, and advisory documents continue to use the depersonalising and demeaning term ‘FSM pupils’.

To an extent, the Sutton Trust has come to the government’s rescue. So has the inspection regime in Wales, with some useful documents and reports about tackling poverty and social disadvantage, including one on working with local communities. But few of the Trust’s ideas are distinctively likely to benefit children from low-income households, and there is an ominous silence in their toolkit about other kinds of difference and inequality affecting educational outcomes, for example gender, ethnicity and disability.

Ways ahead: nine propositions

The way ahead, I suggest, will require consideration of the following propositions. All are relevant to how schools use the pupil premium, but some more obviously so than others. The first two are introductory.

1.  All equalities

The intellectual, legal and moral framework of the Equality Act 2010 is relevant not only to the nine features of human diversity named in the Act itself but also to issues of poverty, income and social class. Schools should have ‘due regard’ (to cite the key phrase in section 149 of the Act) for the disadvantages experienced by pupils who live in lower-income households and should demonstrate this through published information and measurable objectives.

2.  Mix of universal and specific

In order to narrow and close gaps in educational achievement, three kinds of measure are required: a) those which are the same for all pupils, regardless of background b) those which are the same for everyone but which need to be tweaked or adapted to engage members of particular groups and c) those which are special, distinctive or additional for a particular group.

3.  Extended literacy

Literacy is an essential skill, of course, particularly in relation to the kinds of academic language, or specific curriculum language, required for educational achievement.  But literacy is not just about the written word. It is also to do with, for example, film, television and radio.

4.  Soft skills

Certain skills are said to be soft or fuzzy because they cannot be defined, let alone measured and assessed, with great precision. They include curiosity, open-mindedness, ability to work in a team or group, creativity, and emotional stability.

5.  Pupil voice

Every pupil needs to have opportunities to make informed choices about what and how they learn, to express opinions and judgements, to ask questions, to think aloud and to be tentative, and to be attended to and listened to.

6.  Performance and exhibition

Frequently it is valuable if pupils write, perform or create a display for a real audience, either inside their school or beyond the school gates.

7.  It takes a whole village

One of the advantages of performances and exhibitions is that they engage parents and the wider community and give expression to the famous African proverb that it takes a whole village to educate one child.

8.  Mixing of age groups

All pupils benefit from working sometimes with pupils who are rather older or rather younger than themselves.

9.  Conflicts in the real world

In the real world beyond the school gates there are conflicts and controversies, and anxieties and uncertainties. Schools have a responsibility to help young people to cope with, as opposed to being bewildered and depressed by, the problems and issues of the wider world.

Lib Dems in the current coalition could be reasonably expected to agree with some or all of these propositions. So could One Nation Tories and, more obviously, the Labour Party. But the main point I am wishing to press here is that such propositions need to be considered in each individual school. I believe the vast majority of schools would wish to engage with them if they were encouraged to do so. The public support for the Olympics and Paralympics this summer is evidence that there would be enthusiasm and approval in wider society as well.

Robin Richardson is an educational consultant (www.insted.co.uk) and a former director of the Runnymede Trust. His book Changing Life Chances is about practical ways of using the pupil premium and was published by Trentham Books in summer 2012.

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