On Saturday 8th September 2018 I gave a talk to researchED London about the pupil premium. It was too long for my 40-minute slot, and the written version is similarly far too long for one post. So I am posting my argument in three parts [pt I is here and pt III is here].
Most school expenditure sustains a standardised model of education where 30 children are placed in a room with a teacher (and a teacher assistant if you are lucky). Now, for the government to sustain its pupil premium strategy, it makes schools evidence the impact of their pupil premium spending on attainment. But it’s hard to build evidence for that impact if you’re just spending the cash sustaining a well-established, standardised model. (Unless… you segregate all the pupil premium children into one classroom first… though you really shouldn’t, and I have only come across one school so far that is mad enough to do that.)
Instead, in their efforts to close the gap between students sitting in the same classroom, schools ‘target’ pupil premium students with activities and interventions that sit outside the standard whole class activities of a school: tutoring, withdrawal from class with teaching assistants, breakfast clubs, extracurricular activities, and so on. Intervention-type activities suit this short-termist funding stream that is entirely dependent on whether pupil premium eligible students enroll, or not. The chart below shows that over half of the 2,500 teachers answering the Teacher Tapp survey app reported that targeted interventions were provided to pupil premium students, a group that I’ve argued do not have a well-defined set of social or educational needs.
In the classroom too, pupil premium students frequently receive different treatment. 63% of teachers say they are required to monitor their progress more closely than other students; 18% say they mark their books first; two-thirds of secondary teachers are required to mark out the status of pupil premium students on their seating plans.
You could argue that all this is, at worst, inefficient both in its choice of activities and targeting of pupils. But headteachers frequently explain to me the ethical dilemmas this raises in their own schools, where pupils in greater need are excluded from clubs or provision in a manner that can be impossible to explain to parents without identifying those who are disadvantaged.
History teacher, Tom Rogers, has written several posts explaining how the pupil premium has pushed ethical boundaries too far. Here he explains:
In another post, he describes how it affects classroom teachers:
At this stage I know there will be some school leaders and consultants thinking “Yes, but you don’t have to do any of these things. You can spend the money supporting interventions and high quality teaching for all those who need them”. In a sense they are right: the pupil premium hypothecation is only notional and nobody asks to see an audit trail of the expenditure. But if this is our best argument for sustaining the pupil premium as it is, then surely we should just roll it into the general schools funding formula with all the other money that disproportionately flows to schools serving disadvantaged communities?
In any case, it takes a brave headteacher and governing body to explain to Ofsted that they choose to spend their pupil premium funding on non-pupil premium students in need. After all, newspaper articles such as this by Louise Tickle in the Guardian constantly remind them that expenditure must raise the attainment of pupil premium children:
Ofsted comment on pupil premium expenditure and attainment more often than not, even during short inspections. In a sample of 663 Ofsted reports we reviewed from the 2017/18 academic year, 51% mention the pupil premium and well over half of these assert that inspectors can see the monies are being spent effectively!
Where their comments are critical of pupil premium expenditure, they rarely make concrete recommendations that could be useful to anyone, except to the industry of consultants and conferences that help schools solve the riddle of how to spend the pupil premium. These are example quotes from inspection reports (with the one mentioning external review appearing regularly):
- “The school does not meet requirements on the publication of information about the pupil premium spending plan on its website”
- “The leaders and managers do not focus sharply enough on evaluating the amount of progress in learning made by the various groups of pupils at the school, particularly the pupils eligible for the pupil premium …”
- “An external review of the school’s use of the pupil premium funding should be undertaken in order to assess how this aspect of leadership and management may be improved”
Governors are expected to take a central role in relation to monitoring this pot of money (one-third of Ofsted’s pupil premium comments mention governors). Not only must they be trained in how to monitor and evaluate their attainment gap, they should be capable of examining what interventions have been shown to work and be able to analyse pupil attainment data ‘forensically’ (according to an EEF employee quoted in this article).
What should money for disadvantaged pupils be spent on if we want to close the gap?
I have argued that the pupil premium is constructed in a way that encourages interventionist rather than whole class approaches to education improvement, and it does so for a group of students without a well specified set of needs.
Schools that serve more disadvantaged communities do need considerably more money to operate. Their students frequently have greater pastoral needs and they face higher costs of dealing with safeguarding, attendance and behaviour. Equally, we want these schools to provide rich cultural experiences that the students might not otherwise afford. And yet, many of these things we’d like schools to spend money on aren’t central to the question of how we should spend money to raise attainment (remember, the pupil premium is supposed to be used to raise attainment).
Beyond the obvious provision to help make home life matter less to education (e.g. attendance and homework support), we struggle to make highly evidenced and concrete recommendations, in part because ‘money’ has a poor track record in raising educational standards in general. The Education Endowment Foundation was established alongside the pupil premium with the expectation they would identify effective programmes or widgets that schools could then spend money on. Unfortunately, most trials have shown that programmes are no more effective than existing school practice, and in any case free school meal eligible children do not disproportionately benefit from them.
And if we turn to the bigger picture, there is a large literature on the relationship between money spent and pupil outcomes. This isn’t the place to review the literature, but studies (particularly UK ones) frequently show that money does not matter to pupil attainment as much as we think it should. I wish it did, for that would give us a policy lever to improve education.
Money changes the way we educate. It changes the way that education feels to those involved and it changes the diversity of experiences we can give students in school, but that is a different thing to saying it directly affects how students learn.
The curious question is why money and attainment are not more tightly linked.
I don’t think governments help themselves here when they ring-fence money or give it an expiry date which prevents schools making efficient expenditure decisions. And, as discussed earlier in relation to EEF trials, we simply do not have good evidence that it is possible to go and purchase off-the-shelf programmes that are demonstrably effective.
But equally, schools don’t always spend money in a way that increases test scores because they have other considerations, not least making the lives of their staff more manageable. We know from the IFS paper that the majority of the increase in cash over the Labour Government period (which disproportionately went to disadvantaged schools) was spent on expanding the team of teachers who rarely teach (the senior leadership team), teaching assistants, and general wages.
Equally, from a Teacher Tapp question asked last week, we know teachers in secondary schools would choose to spend money on more classroom teachers, presumably to reduce class sizes. Primary school teachers would elect to have more teaching assistants. Both smaller class sizes and teaching assistants are resources that make the lives of teachers more manageable, but evidence says they have little immediate impact on pupil attainment. They certainly do support the long-term health of the teaching profession, which I believe is the most important determinant of pupil attainment in the future (see my Teacher Gap book). But this money does not buy us better pupil attainment today.
To be clear, as a parent whose own children are educated in one of the most poorly funded counties in England, I am gravely concerned about how the current funding crisis is damaging both the quality of the experiences they have and the well-being of their teachers. But equally, as a researcher in this field, I would not be able to give a school well-evidenced advice about how to use money to close the attainment gap. I think this is because improved classroom instruction isn’t something it is easy to buy. Is it possible to teach in a way that disproportionately benefits those in the classroom from disadvantaged backgrounds? This is the question that we will turn to in Part III.
What’s coming up…
Part III asks whether within-classroom inequalities can ever be closed
(Punchline for the nervous… No, I don’t think the pupil premium should be removed. I suggest it should be rolled into general school funding.)