Friday 5 July 2013

Why not have pupil premium rewards too?

In my latest Sutton Trust post, I welcome increased pupil premium accountability, but wonders why ministers don’t also reward schools that successfully deliver for their disadvantaged pupils.

News that the Government is finally putting flesh on its pupil premium accountability measures should mean that the ministerial subsidy for poorer pupils starts to acquire some teeth. On Tuesday, Schools Minister David Laws announced that Ofsted would place greater emphasis on schools’ performance on disadvantaged pupils. Schools where those students were not making good progress could lose their outstanding status.

He also detailed new ways that schools would be held accountable in performance tables for the performance of the one in five pupils who are eligible for the £900 a year grant, which goes both to pupils on free school meals and those who have recently been eligible. On average schools receive £5000 a year per pupil through the dedicated schools grant, but some inner London councils get more than £7000 per pupil.

Statistics show that 38.5% of these pupils reached the five good GCSE benchmark in 2012 compared with 65.7% of other pupils, a gap of over 27 percentage point. In future, the league tables will include data on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, their progress and the gap with their peers. So that schools with small numbers of pupil premium recipients are more fairly held to account, there will be three year rolling averages alongside data for individual years.

Add to that the appointment of the former headteachers’ union leader John Dunford as a pupil premium champion, and the package is undoubtedly a considerable advance on a situation where schools were effectively left to spend the extra cash as they chose.

To be fair, the National Foundation for Education Research survey of teachers for the Sutton Trust his year showed that teachers – and heads in particular – are starting to turn to research, particularly the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, in deciding how to spend the money.

67 per cent of school leaders – up from 52 per cent last year – said their school now consults research in deciding their pupil premium priorities. 43 per cent of school leaders whose schools consider research evidence use the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit. Schools are less likely to spend the money on reducing class sizes – a relatively unproven method – and more likely to spend it on early intervention (proven, but expensive) and one-to-one tuition. However, the most cost effective measures, such as training to improve feedback between teachers and pupils, an important part of teacher development, are also still relatively rarely cited too, as are peer-to-peer tutoring schemes, where older pupils typically help younger pupils to learn.

A separate independent evaluation by social researchers TNS-BMRB and the universities of Manchester and Newcastle for the DFE this week suggested that 45 per cent of schools use academic research and 70 per cent use evidence to inform spending decisions. Three quarters of school use additional staff to support disadvantaged pupils.

The pupil premium is one of the Government’s most important flagship policies, as important to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition as Free Schools are to the Conservatives, though both policies featured in the manifestos of both parties as well as the coalition agreement. 

That makes it all the more surprising that ministers didn’t go further in their announcements this week and start to tie a proportion of pupil funding to school success in meeting the measures against which schools will in future be judged. To be fair, it is unclear that the pupil premium will rise much above its current level of £900 per pupil. George Osborne merely said it would keep pace with prices, in his Spending Review statement. It had been expected to increase to £1200 a year by 2015.

But as the Government moves towards a National Funding Formula – also announced by the Chancellor - it will need to decide how to allocate the substantial extra resources already allocated by many local authorities to schools with large numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that pre-pupil premium extra funding in the system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools.

If the Government really wants to incentivise more effective use of the premium, it should consider rewarding schools that do well in the new league table rolling average measures, and provide them with additional funding that they can use to reward the staff responsible or to make other improvements within the school. Such team-based rewards can be more popular and much less expensive than performance related pay for individual teachers.

The right rewards with advanced accountability could combine to give the pupil premium real teeth.