Monday, 14 May 2012

Clegg's premium needs a harder edge to succeed

Last week Nick Clegg renewed his coalition marriage vows with David Cameron at a tractor factor in Essex. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister has reaffirmed his faith in the pupil premium as a great engine of social mobility, at a primary academy is Islington. Nobody could seriously oppose the pupil premium - indeed, it was as much part of the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto as it was that of the Liberal Democrats - but one can reasonably ask how much difference it will really make.

The pupil premium was supposed to rise to as much as £2500 per pupil by 2015, though changes to its calculation and topslicing mean it will probably be nearer £1200 - there will only be £2.5bn available in the last year of this Parliament and £1.25bn is being spent when it is only £600 in the next school year. Yet, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, extra funding in the current system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools, funding almost double that attached to non-deprived pupils, on average. And there are still huge variations in performance between them. As Clegg himself pointed out in his speech,  

There are now 440 secondary schools - one in five - where disadvantaged pupils are doing better in their GCSEs than the national average for all children.

What that suggests is that they perform worse in four in five schools, despite their existing £2000-£3000 premium. Clegg has sort of recognised that a big problem with the premium is the lack of levers to ensure that schools use it to improve teaching for disadvantaged youngsters. So he has announced details of summer school funding and a sponsored competition for the best ideas on using the new premium. Summer schools were an idea of David Blunkett's first year in government - indeed they may even have been his first initiative - and while they had some positive results, they were no panacea. The contest may spur some good ideas, but it is still likely to leave most schools using the premium to plug the gaps left by the Government's cuts in the rest of the school budgets: again, the IFS has shown that around three-quarters of primary schools and 90% of secondary schools are seeing real terms cuts, though with lower salary inflation, the figure falls to 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries. An NAHT survey recently found similar concerns.

Clegg says that Ofsted will be reporting on how the pupil premium is used. But unless there is a link between the premium and some narrowing of the gap in Key Stage 2 or GCSE results for poorer pupils (with no loss of performance at the top end) then the pupil premium is unlikely to achieve much at all in the majority of schools and for most disadvantaged pupils. The Government already publishes a lot of this data: why not say that a significant proportion of the premium after three years is dependent on better results for those from poorer backgrounds? The premium needs such a harder edge if it is to succeed.

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