Sam and Josh are brothers. Sam is in Year 10 and goes to the local comprehensive, and Josh is in his first year at the FE college down the road. Their home life is hard: they were both raised in care, spent years in and out of care homes and with different foster families. Both are classed as "disadvantaged learners" by the system.
Sam’s school receives £995 a year in pupil premium funding to offset this disadvantage: the money pays for free school meals, and he also receives extra tuition outside of curriculum hours. When Josh was in secondary, he, too, was eligible for the funding. When he arrived at the FE college, that funding disappeared. His disadvantage, however, did not.
According to the House of Commons Library, 2 million pupils were allocated pupil premium funding in primary and secondary education in 2020-21. In post-16 education, none were because the fund doesn’t exist past the age of 16. Why not? It’s a question sector leaders have been asking for years.
But this month the government introduced a pilot scheme that could make all the difference to learners like Josh. The Pupil Premium Plus (PP+) post-16 pilot will give £3 million to local authorities to test an extension of the fund to looked-after children and care leavers in “virtual schools” on placements in FE colleges between October 2021 and March 2022.
It’s welcome news for the sector, but, given the adverse impact of Covid on disadvantaged learners, does the pilot go far enough? Is it just learners like Josh who should benefit or should it be extended more widely across FE?
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Lisa Capper, head of education at social justice charity Nacro, says that while the pilots are welcome, they are just a drop in the ocean.
“This trial is needed for those young people in virtual schools who need as much help as they can get to maintain and sustain their learning at post-16,” she says. “But there are a lot of young people who don’t fall into that category, who face some of the same barriers. At the moment, there’s a divide between pre-16 and post-16 in terms of funding, but the issues young people face which prevent them from succeeding at school don’t just go away.”
Some might argue that additional funding already exists for disadvantaged learners in FE, through the 16-19 bursary fund. Eligibility depends on whether students get income support or disability living allowance, or are in local authority care.
But Capper says the bursary is too limited, and doesn't provide enough support.
“One in five students by the age of 19 haven’t achieved the standard level of attainment you'd expect them to achieve at the end of secondary school,” she says. “This shows you there are barriers to learning, and it's going to hamper our economy because we're not getting the young people on the right pathways to good jobs or high-level skills. We have to do something about the lost generation – those young people that are falling behind. The bursary isn't having the impact, it's limited and more needs to be done.”
Disadvantage funding is also built in through the funding formula based on postcode. David Robinson, director of skills and post-16 at think tank the Education Policy Institute, says it doesn't provide enough support for learners, and, actually, eligibility through free school meal entitlement at secondary school would be better.
“The formula says if a student is from a certain broad 'disadvantaged' postcode, then they get more funding. But we found that, actually, even if you just use free school meals eligibility from secondary schools, it's a better way to target lower attainment,” he says. “We called for an overhaul of the funding formula and, as part of that, an overall increase in funding for disadvantaged students.”
He highlights data from an EPI report in March 2021, which found that students from less well-off backgrounds were the equivalent of three whole A-level grades behind their better-off peers. The research showed that while the gap could be explained by disadvantaged students already having lower grades at GCSE, they then fall even further behind through sixth-form and college, leaving them around half an A-level grade behind better-off students with the same GCSE results.
In the research, the EPI also called for an extension of the premium for 16- to 18-year-olds as a way to help schools and colleges close that gap – something Robinson stresses.
Paul Philips, principal of Weston College, says the need for a pupil premium in FE is absolutely there – especially in light of the pandemic.
“I would always have welcomed the pilots, but I think in the light of Covid and other issues as well, it’s particularly needed. But I've seen a 55 per cent increase in interventions in our college in the last 12 months, across a huge category of students,” he says.
“We need funding to cover groups like ex-offenders, the homeless, those in rehabilitation. Already in 2020-21, we've had 12,000 interventions with learners who are affected by Covid, with learners who've got major mental health issues. It's a bit of a perfect storm, to be honest – you can see the growth. I've had to employ significant extra staff to deal with the counselling and support for the learners.”
How would a pupil premium in FE work?
So how could a wider pupil premium for further education work in practice? What should the funds be spent on? How should the funds be distributed? And, crucially, how much do colleges need per student?
Nacro is calling on the government to introduce a Pupil Premium Plus for 16- to 19-year-olds studying for FE qualifications who have been held back by disadvantage or who face multiple barriers to learning. It estimates that it would need to be funded at £1,000 per learner, per year, and paid at the ages of 16, 17 and 18 to incorporate a three-year study programme.
“The money needs to follow the learner, and be targeted on the learning that's taking place in the provider,” Capper explains. “We're not trying to say the money should be for providers, we're trying to say the money should be for the learner, and we think what they're doing with virtual schools is absolutely right, but we would like to see that expanded and channelled through further education providers.”
Philips says the funding would need to focus on hiring specialist staff to run mentoring and support schemes that build trust.
“With these learners, you need to build what I call gentle trust initially, and then learners can start to overcome their own personal barriers, and progression can follow. They are all key stages. These are people who are very disadvantaged and have disillusionment with society. So you've got to work really carefully with them,” he says.
“You need some of the money to invest in the specialist staff to actually deliver all of this, and the demand for specialist staff will vary from institution to institution. Then there's the cost of those staff and the level to which they are utilised. My experience is that there is often a shortage of those staff, and at Weston we’re developing a foundation degree modular approach so we can train these staff.”
Robinson suggests that the funding could be spent on extracurricular activities, although he says the impact they can have on attainment of this group of students is largely unexplored by research.
“Schools and colleges [need the premium] to help those students to close the disadvantage attainment gap. There is a whole other debate on extracurricular activities,” he explains.
“Anecdotally, we understand that the provision has been decimated in recent years, and for those students who are going on to higher education, I think that matters less, as they will have opportunities to do some of those things while they're doing their undergraduate degree.
“But I think, for students who finish education at 18, this is the last chance they have to have some of those border experiences in building a range of life skills, which, of course, isn't happening or is happening much less at the moment due to what we understand as falls in provision.”
Capper says the money should be targeted on five key areas: engaging students with education, extracurricular activities, careers support and guidance, community outreach and wellbeing and mental health.
“All of this provision needs to be built into a learner's day: it needs to be about habits, it needs to be about reinforcing those positive messages and understanding the needs of those learners, as they go through their day,” she says. “None of these activities should be things that are done and then forgotten about. We want to make sure there's enough capacity within our workforce to be able to facilitate these types of activities and engagement.”
And while Nacro estimates that £1,000 per student is needed, Robinson says he would want to see more research done before committing to a figure and Philips believes the figure should be even higher. He says it’s hard to estimate how much money should be awarded per student, but that it could be between £2,000 and £25,000, depending on the level of need.
But both Philips and Capper agree that funding would need to be awarded through the funding formula – and remain consistent and stable.
“However the scheme works, it's going to have to be a money-upfront scheme,” says Philips. "That’s a definite. I don't see it working otherwise. Then there would be a level of incentivisation, and to ensure the continuity, and to make sure you do get that progression.”
Capper agrees, and says it needs to be included in the funding formula.
“By building it into the actual funding system, you’ve got a really good chance to be able to plan ahead and put in some really strong meaningful approaches, rather than quick projects which come and go. It's about a sustained approach,” she says.
The potential that an extended pupil premium fund has to change the lives of thousands of 16- to 18-year-olds is massive, she stresses.
“There’s around 160,000 young people in the system who need more funding,” says Capper. “What is their progression rate from 16, once that pupil premium finishes at school? That is what we want to put in place in post-16, no matter where they learn, whether it's a college, training provider, or apprenticeship, and it needs to continue, and it needs to be systemic.”