'If Justine Greening is serious about social mobility, it's time to increase the early years pupil premium'

The early years phase of education is the best opportunity to close the attainment gap – it's time to put some extra cash behind it, writes one heads' leader

Paul Whiteman

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In a week when the education headlines have been dominated by calls for the chancellor to invest more fully in schools and young people, Justine Greening announced further initiatives to support her ambition to improve equality of opportunity in areas of the country where disadvantaged pupils need the most help.

If we know one thing about the education secretary, it is that equality of opportunity is her main focus. The school leaders who make up the NAHT heads' union’s membership will welcome her commitment to the issue of social mobility, and this latest plank in the strategy: incentives to encourage more teachers of science and modern foreign languages in 25 areas facing the greatest recruitment challenges.

This proposal to effectively cover newly qualified teachers’ student loan repayments echoes the long-standing NAHT recommendation that loan forgiveness would encourage teachers into the profession and keep them there.

It’s great to see Ms Greening listening to the profession, and daring to innovate, and we would urge her to go further in evaluating the impact of this approach and rolling it out more widely. We believe that the cost of the scheme would be more than offset by the reduction in fees paid to recruitment and supply agencies currently where schools are unable to recruit.

The main focus for the DfE’s strategy on social mobility are the 12 new opportunity areas: working on recruitment; the investment in the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund; the new research schools with the Education Endowment Fund; the Strategic School Improvement Fund.

There’s a lot to do in those areas and while we welcome the investment, we should also be alive to the risk that our members leading schools in those areas may be overwhelmed. I’m very pleased to see how well the partnership boards in each area are working with school leaders, and that our members are helping to shape the delivery plans but we have to recognise that this creates issues of capacity in those very schools that often have the least. 

I’ve written before about setting high expectations about what schools are capable of achieving, and the importance of seeing schools efforts alongside and not instead of high-quality public services and sources of support for young people.

The plans published two weeks ago for the first six areas are rightly ambitious but they need to provide for backfill capacity for school leaders and their staff to engage in the wealth of initiatives that have been proposed.

What’s striking about the plans is that all of them focus on the early years. This is a good thing. Early intervention as key to achieving equality of opportunity for all children. This is an argument that we’ve made for years, and that we repeated time and again when the government were proposing the expansion of grammar schools to improve social mobility.

Investment in the early years is a much more fruitful method. This has been recognised by The Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report published last November when they recommended: “a radical redistribution of resources within the education budget to get more investment and better-quality services to the children who need them most.”

The Commission advocated an increase in the early years pupil premium – which gives childcare providers and schools additional funding to help three- and four-year-olds from low-income families – from £302 a year to £600. 

The early years phase of education presents the best opportunity to close the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged households and their peers.

Equality of opportunity is something that those of us who work in schools and on behalf of young people care deeply about.

It is reassuring to have an education secretary who shares this focus, who has demonstrated a real, personal commitment to equality of opportunity for all pupils and is willing to listen to the profession.

With this in mind, I would urge that some serious thought is given to increasing the early years pupil premium. It could drive forward equality of opportunity for all pupils – not just in the new opportunity areas – and at the most crucial stage of their lives.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary designate of the NAHT headteachers’ union. He tweets @PaulWhiteman6

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