Why the Pupil Premium doesn’t work and what we can do about it

This article was written for Children & Young People Now Magazine and first published in December 2018. If you have a subscription, you can read the full article on the CYP website.

What is the Pupil Premium?

One in four children in the UK grows up in poverty and the attainment gap between rich and poor is detectable at an early age. White working-class pupils (particularly boys) are among the lowest performers and the link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial.

In 2011, the coalition government introduced the Pupil Premium to close the gap. However, its success has been variable…

The gap has closed fastest in schools with the highest concentration of disadvantaged pupils.

Schools with many disadvantaged pupils whose attainment is close to the expected standard thresholds (used in the floor standards) have also made inroads.

In contrast, schools with the lowest proportions of disadvantaged pupils have seen the gap widen, particularly at key stages 2 and 4, indicating disadvantaged children are are not prioritised when they are in the extreme minority.

Why doesn’t the Pupil Premium work?

The limited impact of PP can be attributed to many factors…

Firstly, the PP is awarded to pupils who are eligible for free school meals (as well as those in care and care-leavers, and children from service families) but FSM eligibility is a poor proxy for educational and social disadvantage (50-75% of FSM children are not in the lowest income households and it’s the time-poor and less educated who are less engaged and motivated at school).

Secondly, PP children are not an homogenous group (indeed, the group mean masks significant differences amongst those eligible).

Thirdly, closing the gap is more difficult for some schools because the size of the ‘gap’ is dependent on the non-PP demographic in a school (the more advantaged the non-PP cohort, the harder it is to close the gap). As such, PP data is often meaningless (assessments change and the PP cohort changes – not least as a result of benefits reforms), and in-school sample sizes are usually too small to make inferences.

What can we do about it?

Although the PP is flawed, it remains vital that schools continue to work hard to level the playing field. So what can schools do?

On average, 40% of the overall gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already emerged by the age of five. These gaps are particularly pronounced in early language and literacy. By the age of 3, more disadvantaged children are – on average – already almost 18 months behind their more affluent peers in their early language development. Around two fifths of disadvantaged five-year-olds are not meeting the expected literacy standard for their age.

The PP should, therefore, be spent on improving children’s literacy and language skills. Black and William (2018) explain: “Children from working class families, who are only familiar with the restricted code of their everyday language, may find it difficult to engage with the elaborated code that is required by the learning discourse of the classroom and which those from middle class families experience in their home lives.”

…to continue reading this article, please visit the Children & Young People Now website.


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