Pupil premium

The pupil premium reforms we need for a post-Covid recovery

An increase in pupil premium funding next year is welcome, writes Russell Hobby, but the policy needs significant improvements to deliver its aims

An increase in pupil premium funding next year is welcome, writes Russell Hobby, but the policy needs significant improvements to deliver its aims

29 Apr 2022, 5:00

Recent Education Policy Institute research has shown that there has been no progress since 2011 in closing the attainment gap between persistently disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. Indeed, the pandemic has only made that gap worse.

Decisive action is needed to ensure every child can maximise their potential. Because while young people’s talents are evenly distributed across the country, access to a brilliant education is not. Schools serving disadvantaged communities face significantly harder challenges compared to those in more affluent areas and simply need more funding and resources to do the same job.  

Teachers agree. Seventy-four per cent believe the government should invest in all schools but weight additional funding towards those in disadvantaged areas. And almost 70 per cent feel that increasing pupil premium would help their school secure better outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.

While the government has made some welcome steps by increasing pupil premium rates by 2.7 per cent in the 2022-23 academic year, it must go further in four ways.

Accounting for inflation

Pupil premium funding is vital for schools serving disadvantaged communities, but in recent years rates have not risen in line with inflation. That means a real-terms cut, which makes it more difficult to provide necessary support to those who need it most.

Restoring pupil premium rates to 2015-16 real-term levels for primary and secondary school pupils – and guaranteeing that rates will continue to rise in line with inflation – would make it easier to provide that support and tackle educational inequality. It would allow schools to implement more long-term planning, including teacher recruitment and development – a vital component of high-quality education.

Recognising persistent disadvantage

The current pupil premium system doesn’t account for pupils who face persistent disadvantage, the same who have the lowest levels of attainment. Schools receive the same level of funding for a child who has been eligible for free school meals for several years as for a pupil eligible for just a year or two.

So we need a new “persistently disadvantaged” pupil premium subcategory – for those who have been eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent or more of their school life. Its rate should be 50 per cent higher, allowing schools to provide additional support for some of the most vulnerable children in society.

Matching funding for early years

The Department for Education’s recent schools white paper includes a pledge to ensure 90 per cent of children leave primary school with age-expected standard for reading, writing and numeracy by 2030. But we know the attainment gap can set in before primary school, so we must re-examine how we are helping teachers in early years settings support children’s learning.

Our research found 71 per cent of primary school teachers believe pupils entering reception are less cognitively, socially and emotionally prepared for school than in previous years. Currently, disadvantaged pupils in early years settings receive less pupil premium funding than those in primary school. Aligning those rates would make a significant difference to helping young pupils develop the social and academic skills they need to transition to primary school and in turn to helping meet these ambitious targets.

Seeing pupils through their whole journey

Currently, there is no pupil premium for 16-to-19-year-olds. This is an anomaly in the system; its introduction could boost participation and achievement – and improve thousands of young people’s work prospects. With almost 700,000 young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), this could make a significant difference.

If we don’t implement pupil premium reforms now, we risk another lost decade with no progress in closing the attainment gap and tackling educational inequality. They are the most efficient way of helping to ‘level up’ our education system, young people’s future opportunities and our long-term economic prospects. They are simple, build on an existing, successful system and will ensure every child receives the necessary support they need – from nursery all the way through their school lives.

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