`If we get it right, we have solved a problem: inequality'

Forget the pupil premium – find investors, entrepreneur urges
17th October 2014, 1:00am


`If we get it right, we have solved a problem: inequality'


The pupil premium has created a wasteful "aid mindset" in education, and a new approach is needed to attract the philanthropists "queuing up" to invest in failing schools, a leading social entrepreneur has warned.

But Graeme Duncan believes he may have found the solution: a radical new model for intervention that will unlock millions of pounds of investment and achieve better results for the country's most vulnerable pupils.

Back in 2003, Mr Duncan was the first graduate recruited by Teach First. The two years he spent in a tough secondary in North London proved to be eye-opening. "I saw first-hand the disadvantage these kids were suffering, and the school wasn't able to provide what they needed," he said. "Since then, I've been trying to do something about it."

Mr Duncan has now created the social enterprise Right to Succeed, and aims to create a pound;19 million pilot project to transform the fortunes of 20 struggling schools across the country.

Although this ambition may be bold, Mr Duncan insists it is no pipe dream. Last month, Right to Succeed received the Teach First Innovation Award 2014, along with pound;10,000 in prize money. After "very positive" talks with potential partners, Mr Duncan is hoping to get the first phase of the project up and running in early 2016.

But lessons must be learned from the pupil premium if the money is to result in improved outcomes for students, Mr Duncan believes.

Under the government's current policy, schools in England receive additional funding for every student from a disadvantaged background and are free to spend it as they see fit, but the impact has been patchy. Last year, Ofsted released a report on pupil premium spending which states that a "significant minority" of schools are "still struggling to show how the money is making any meaningful impact in terms of narrowing the gap between pupils from low-income and more affluent families".

This was a major concern, Mr Duncan argued. "The pupil premium is inefficient: people are spending what they can afford, not what they need to," he said. "We need to do more than just fiddling around the edges.

"It's wonderful that schools have been getting more money to support the neediest pupils, but there's no real support for schools to understand how they can most effectively spend the funding."

Because of this, evidence-based intervention is at the heart of the Right to Succeed approach. Under the model, initial funding would be invested in three-year "social impact bonds", which would involve social investors - Mr Duncan has remained tight-lipped about the scheme's backers - stumping up for projects at each of the schools. These would be linked to targets covering a range of measures, such as exam results, attendance, behaviour, destination data and student well-being.

Providing the targets were hit by the end of the three years, the investment would be refunded by the commissioning body. And if the projects were unsuccessful, the loss would be borne by the investors rather than the taxpayer.

Mr Duncan is confident that Right to Succeed could prove to be transformational across the country.

"People want to invest in an education project," he said. "This is just the start of a fantastic model for investment. As well as driving up improvement, it drives up the amount of evidence and data available. If we get it right, we will have solved one of the major problems in education: inequality."

Teach First's chief executive, Brett Wigdortz, is impressed with his protg's approach. "Education across the country continues to be a postcode lottery for children from poorer families.It's really exciting, then, that some of the country's brightest and most ambitious young entrepreneurs, like Graeme, are dedicating themselves to tackling a problem as important as educational inequality," he said.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the plan offered an "interesting model" but warned that it was no silver bullet.

"The pupil premium has enabled schools to make a very big difference," he said. "What we want to see, as well as the pupil premium, is a national fair funding formula to ensure all schools get a fair deal.

"[Right to Succeed] sounds easy in principle, but we would need to know how the funds would be allocated. There are questions that need answering."

Targeted support

Just 148 secondary schools in England would be eligible to take part in Right to Succeed. Under the precise qualifying criteria, they would need to:

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