The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report today showing that two thirds of children classified as poor are poor despite the fact that at least one of their parents is in work. Russell Hobby responds by proposing two progressive policies to improve social mobility
It was encouraging to hear our new Prime Minister put ending inequality at the centre of her pitch to the nation when she spoke on the steps of Downing Street last week.
It was heartening to hear our new Education Secretary talk about the transformative power of schools in interviews over the weekend. We welcome these words, but words alone will not make a difference. Successive governments have all pledged to end inequality. Despite some progress, all have fallen short.
Creating new grammar schools is not the answer. The evidence is persuasive: they make things better for a few and worse for many – including the bright but disadvantaged that they are meant to serve. It would be disappointing to spend the next few years embroiled in a debate about what is essentially a distraction.
Instead, we have two simple but powerful policies that are progressive and effective.
Automatic Pupil Premium registration
The Pupil Premium has become a vital tool for narrowing the gap for children from families with lower incomes. It shows the value of giving school leaders a resource and then letting them decide how best to use it for the benefit of the children in their care. The EEF toolkit is a great piece of work that school leaders use regularly and is an example of what can be achieved when best practice is shared, owned and endorsed by the teaching profession itself. But we need to guarantee that the premium gets to every pupil who deserves it. This is not the case at the moment.
The Pupil Premium has become a vital tool for narrowing the gap
Unfortunately, the burden is on parents to come forward to register and for schools to coax families into admitting they need help. “Hello, what benefits are you on?” is a question that school leaders are expected to ask new parents when they meet for the first time. That’s not a great basis to start a relationship which needs to stand the test of time. It’s also ineffective.
The DfE’s own figures show that nationally 11 per cent of children are missing out on the Pupil Premium. In some areas of the country it is over 30 per cent. This is distorting the impact of the premium and adding extra workload on to schools at a time when school budgets are being pushed to breaking point by the need to step in and help children living near or below the poverty line.
NAHT members say they are diverting many millions annually from their teaching and learning budgets, to spend on food, clothes and extra support. At the same time, nearly two thirds of school leaders are making ‘significant’ cuts or dipping into reserves to stave off deficits.
Automatically registering children for the pupil premium would put a serious dent in this problem. The data is available – it just has to be shared with schools. It would be an immediate and significant victory in the battle against social inequality.
Admissions priority for children eligible for free school meals
Our second suggestion is just as simple on paper, but radical in its effects of social mobility and equity. We call it ‘FSM First’. The idea is that students eligible for free school meals move to the head of the admissions queue, immediately behind looked after children, for any school in the country, regardless of catchment area. At the moment a school can choose to do this; we suggest making it compulsory for all.
This would severely limit admissions gaming by some schools and curb the effects of ‘gentrification’ on the intakes of successful schools serving challenging areas. It will reduce the barriers to the most disadvantaged children getting in front of the best teachers – which is exactly the intervention required to make a difference.
Of course, this policy should apply to existing grammar schools too. Maybe if they prove they can deliver outstanding results without selecting for wealth by proxy, we could return to the debate on their existence or expansion. Perhaps we should also apply it to independent schools, up to a percentage of FSM students equal to the national average. Such schools would be eligible for the pupil premium payments too. A significant number already operate generous bursary and scholarship schemes, so this may not be as big a burden as it looks.
Truly solving educational inequality means removing barriers to children from poorer backgrounds getting access to the best teaching. We need to ensure that all of them get the funds they deserve and that they are not crowded out from the best schools. Here are two steps for doing that. They won’t eliminate the problem by themselves but they make a good start.