'It’s time we came clean: the pupil premium hasn’t worked. And it’s unfair too'

The pupil premium is a political intervention, not an educational one, and it doesn’t work, argues one teacher-writer

Thomas Rogers

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With an election on the horizon, there’s never been a better time to ask some serious, and potentially contentious, questions about the pupil premium, a policy that has now become the government’s billion-pound baby.

Basically, I think pupil premium as a concept is flawed: flawed as an idea, flawed as an actionable policy. Just because a policy aims to help poor people, in itself an admirable goal, doesn't mean it shouldn't be beyond reproach or protected from proper scrutiny.

To begin with, before even discussing the nuts and bolts of pupil premium impact, the idea that students (and their parents) receive “more” or a somewhat “better deal” based solely on their personal income is one I struggle with. The idea that students should be “selected” for special treatment based on their parent’s financial position seems to run at odds with a system that has its foundations in full and fair access for all.

I find it astonishing there is such a huge backlash against grammar schools, but there is so little objection to the division of pupils already embedded into our education system via pupil premium. In some schools, this goes as far as to say, if a number of students need help with something in class, it doesn’t matter whose academic need is the greater, the teacher is asked to attend to the pupil premium student first. I buy into the idea we should be encouraging educational success for all, but not surely not by rationing teaching for the more affluent.  

Pupil premium never asks why parents are in the position they are in. So, in essence, you could have a student’s parents just above the pupil premium threshold, working all the hours god gives, barely being able to afford school equipment, let alone holidays, whose children receive no special treatment. Then you have a student just below the threshold – perhaps the parents choose to not work. They receive all sorts of benefits: first digs on educational visits, extra tutoring and myriad other, sometimes extravagant, “support”. Is this fair?

Narrowing the gap?

The presumption that parents who earn a little more will provide a lot more opportunities is wrong. Many working parents are desperately trying to save money so might not be inclined to send their sons and daughters to a theatre production in the West End to raise their “cultural capital”. Many low-income working families are trying their very best with what they have. I’m not advocating a return to some kind of Victorian concept of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, but is that any better than the idea that there are “deserving” and “undeserving” levels of income? Where’s the cut-off point?

The idea that the harder you work, the more you earn, seems to have become an unpopular concept in some parts. The idea that anyone who is “better off” has somehow “screwed the system and other people” has gained traction in recent decades but perhaps they worked harder or made better choices?

Beyond all this, and perhaps even more significantly, the millions ploughed into “narrowing the gap” in the form of pupil premium programme are so far, no good. Government data consistently shows that pupil premium students still do much worse than other children – a fact that the programme’s advocates strangely use to justify its continued existence.

Should we really keep throwing money at the problem? Not for me. I’ve written before about how I feel the root of this problem lies way beyond “poverty” – for me, “values poverty” is a much bigger one than “financial poverty”. Writing last year, I said: “I think that the most significant poverty in the UK today is emotional poverty, mindset poverty, aspiration poverty; in essence, 'values poverty'. And this is a form of poverty that finance seems unable to fix.”

I haven’t changed my view. Whether it be parenting classes or more parental penalties, I'm not sure, but there must surely be some recognition that the issue of educational underachievement is not simply bound up in money but in other, more subtle factors.

Surely we need to look at the results of this policy above all else? Is it helping? Is it creating more problems for teachers? I noticed this poll on social media last week, which is a nod to the sort of dilemmas teachers now face. Many are going against their gut instinct to treat all students equally by targeting a certain, perhaps undeserving, few.

Benefits of reform

Meanwhile, school coffers are almost empty. So, while the government piles many millions more into its failing pupil premium policy, headteachers are scrounging for anything and everything. I want to take a direct quote from John Tomsett, headteacher, writing for Tes. He said of his school: “GCSEs and new A levels require new examination board-endorsed textbooks. Textbooks are highly recommended by our schools minister, Nick Gibb. But I have little idea how we might find nearly £10,000 to buy the new books. For the first time in my career, our GCSE and A-level students are having to buy their own textbooks.”

Teaching assistants are losing their jobs. In other areas, they are taking massive pay cuts to keep working. In primary schools in the St Helens region, average TA pay is £14,000 a year, with further cuts expected. Some staff are reporting pay cuts in excess of £5,000. Being a TA is fast becoming one of the worst-paid jobs in the UK.

Yet in the middle of this, pupil premium remains untouched: secondary schools continue to receive between £900 and £1,700 per pupil.

The benefits of reforming pupil premium might not just be felt in an ethical and financial sense, but it could also relieve some teacher stress. Currently, teachers are being asked to collect, collate and in some cases, analyse their own pupil premium data. They are being asked to highlight pupil premium students on seating plans. They are being asked to demonstrate, often in writing, what they have done for X or Y pupil premium students. Finally, their individual results are being judged on the difference between their PP and non-PP scores as a residual, which is often unfair, misleading and deeply stressful. “Marking out” PP students is not only to the detriment of other students but also to the workload of the teacher.

It’s worth remembering that pupil premium is not a statutory benefit. This is a “bonus”, an “add on”, introduced as a flagship policy in April 2011 by the coalition government. It can’t be untouchable. I’m sure there is a political agenda with pupil premium, there always is. “We are the government who helps the poor.” “We will do something incredibly noticeable so our critics can’t say we aren’t doing anything.”

But education policy should never be subject to this kind of political point scoring: children’s lives and teachers livelihoods are far more important than that.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is a history teacher

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