Editorial - Budget cut pain should not blind us to excellence of pupil premium

Gerard Kelly

How was the comprehensive spending review for you? Were you relieved, angry, confused, or suspicious that whatever the headlines, the devil and the pain will always lie in the slowly arriving detail? Pessimists had plenty to chew over - the pruning of local authority grants, the abolition of education maintenance allowances, the slashing of capital budgets and a mooted 3 per cent increase in employee pension contributions midway through a two-year pay freeze - otherwise known as a cut (pages 18-21).

Against that litany of woe must be set the fact that the education budget was trimmed by far less than feared. Admittedly, a 3.4 per cent reduction over four years is not going to feel like a picnic for a sector used to a decade of healthy budget settlements, but it was a hell of a lot better than the 25 per cent reductions widely, and some would say cynically, advertised. Then there was the welcome news that a load of cash that had formerly been given to schools on the understanding that it was spent on specific projects was henceforth liberated for use as headteachers thought best. How adult.

Yet the most important educational initiative for a generation is in danger of being overlooked because of a fixation with accountancy, a dishonest prospectus and sterile political point-scoring. The pupil premium is potentially one of the most transformative measures ever launched by a government. It promises to transfer vast sums of money - some schools could see budget increases of nearly #163;1 million - from the relatively comfortable to the poor (page 1). It is both forensic - it targets individuals, not postcodes - and crude - poverty commands a premium. Schools that do not have significant numbers of pupils on free school meals - the majority - will not benefit. They are, understandably, gutted. The Government is gambling that they can afford to be annoyed.

It is also true that the Coalition reneged on its pledge to fund the pupil premium without plundering the rest of the education budget, that there is no guarantee that schools will spend the money on pupil progression, and that the exact details of who is eligible and how it will play out are sketchy. What an imperfect world we live in.

And yet... we are still left with the prospect that significant sums of money will attach to those pupils who need it most. A largely Conservative government is prepared to denude Conservative-voting districts of money and ship it to places where a blue rosette is as expected as Polly Toynbee on Top Gear. Michael Gove, with Lib-Dem encouragement, has found his inner Aneurin Bevan. The pupil premium is radically redistributive. It is an excellent policy and just because Labour lacked the foresight, imagination or bottle to implement it when it was in government does not make it any less progressive.


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Gerard Kelly

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