The poorest pupils in the worst schools in Britain are doing less well than they were three years ago. That was the depressing news recently from the Education Endowment Fund. Last year, only two in five reached expected standards in primary school compared with almost half in 2007.
Children on free school meals in poorly performing schools are half as likely as their more affluent peers to meet expected standards in primary school and a third as likely to meet standards at secondary.
The pupil premium is a major part of the Government's response to this failure. It is meant to create an incentive for good schools to take on more challenging children and to provide more resources for them to do so. But parents are as important as schools when it comes to children's achievement. Giving parents control of a portion of the pupil premium to address the wider family and social issues that affect children's education would give standards a bigger boost.
The importance of family background to education reveals itself very early on. According to research carried out for the Sutton Trust, the vocabulary of children from the poorest fifth of families is nearly a year behind that of children from middle-income families at the start of school. Problems at home impact on children's ability to learn at school. Divorce, domestic violence, long-term health problems and overcrowding can all significantly disrupt a child's schooling. Frequent absences, a lack of concentration and unfinished homework are not always the signs of a bad pupil. But parents can also make a real, positive difference. The educational impact of growing up in a poor family can be overcome by parents who have books in the house, read to their children and encourage learning.
Schools struggle to respond to the issues that children bring to school from home. When it comes to this aspect of education, parents are the experts. This is where giving parents greater control of the pupil premium could come in.
In the next academic year, schools will get #163;430 for each child who is eligible for free school meals. The worst-performing schools in the country have, on average, 30 per cent of their pupils eligible for free meals. This means that the worst-performing primaries will each receive around #163;31,000 a year and secondary schools around #163;125,000 a year.
Parents could control 50 per cent of the pupil premium that the school attracts for their child, still leaving schools with a large amount of extra funding.
How could this work in practice to improve education? Here are a few examples. A mother who knows that her child is being bullied because his uniform is always dirty since their washing machine broke down could put her budget towards a new machine. Parents who are going through a divorce could use their budget to pay for counselling for their children - something they could not otherwise afford. A parent whose child is struggling to read but is not getting the support he needs at school could use her budget to pay for a tutor. A 14-year-old who is losing interest in school but whose parents know he has a real passion for cars could pay the local garage to give him some work experience to get him motivated again.
Where parents see a common need, they could pool their budgets. For example, parents living on the same street who are worried about the safety of their children on the way home from school could pool their budgets to pay for a neighbour to walk their children home while they are still at work. Parents would have to demonstrate to the local authority that they were spending their budgets in ways that could be expected to have an impact on their child's attainment. To ensure co-ordination with schools, parents could plan how to use their budgets in consultation with teachers and other school staff.
Such ideas might be radical in the context of schools, but they have been edging into many other areas of public services with positive results. The Department for Education has recently completed an individual budget pilot to give parents greater control over services for children with disabilities, including control over the funding available for special educational needs. Parents and children report real improvements in their lives and some have made substantial changes to the services they were previously receiving. Similar positive findings have been demonstrated in health and social care, with significant changes in people's lives brought about by small amounts of money. The Government's open public services white paper, published last week, argues that wherever possible, the power over the public services that people use should be in the hands of individuals. Only where that is not possible should control move up to communities or government.
Schools have long recognised the importance of engaging parents. The schools in the Knowledge is Power Program in the US, for example, which have an enviable track record in getting children from poor communities to university, insist that parents sign a learning pledge. But working closely with parents from poorer backgrounds can be difficult as many have had a bad experience of education and lack confidence in their role as experts, making them more reluctant to get involved than better-educated parents.
Giving these parents control over a portion of the pupil premium moves beyond engagement to give parents a real stake in the education of their children, trusting in their expertise and recognising them as partners alongside teachers and schools. This could transform the education of our least well-off children and the running of some of Britain's most challenging schools.
Vidhya Alakeson is director of research and strategy at the Resolution Foundation.