‘The Pupil Premium shouldn’t just be spent on the English and maths – how about expanding horizons too?’

There is lots of evidence to suggest that the extra money is well spent on the arts and cultural experiences, writes a former Children’s Commissioner for England

Maggie Atkinson

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A recent study published by Professor Stephen Gorard declares that pupil premium funding is ‘a blunt instrument’. The government’s school-funding system that was brought in in 2010 to help disadvantaged pupils is failing to do just that, says Professor Gorard, as the results from the study show a clear correlation between the length of time for which pupils had been eligible for free school meals and their academic results.

I agree that more could be done to help these most vulnerable pupils. However, by and large, schools commit to doing all they can with the pupil premium money, and we can’t hope to change deprivation being directly linked to problems with achievement and attainment in one parliament, so I support pupil premium’s continuation.

I do believe, though, that a different approach to spending the money allocated could be the answer to making a real positive impact on children’s lives.

It is interesting that a publication released by Ofsted into successful spending of pupil premium does not mention the arts anywhere. For me, this seems like a perfect fit for funding. In an era where ‘character education’ is high on the agenda, I would ask: what better is there to build character than exposing students to the arts and culture?

Much more welcome were the education and childcare minister Sam Gyimah’s comments when announcing this year’s Pupil Premium Awards: “… I am calling on schools to ensure all their pupils can access and benefit from wider cultural activities and experiences that will help raise aspirations and build character”, he said. It is also worth noting that prizes for the awards include "the chance to see Shakespeare productions and visit museums" and the awards themselves will be presented by Tracy Emin, "one of Britain’s foremost contemporary artists".

This disparity between what it seems the government are implying the funds should be spent on, and what schools are choosing to (or indeed feeling they have to) spend the funds on is a real indication to me that a rethink is needed in regards to how the education sector as a whole approaches pupil premium funding.

It is completely understandable that schools’ immediate priority for disadvantaged pupils is to ensure that they get the ‘golden ticket’ 5 A*-C grades at GCSEs, including English and maths. This should always be the case as, at the end of the day, this is what is going to set students up with the best possible start when leaving school to enter the world of higher education or employment. Where many opt therefore to spend this funding on things such as extra maths tuition, I would argue that the money would be just as well spent on increasing students’ access to cultural and creative activities.

As Professor Gorard’s study shows above, there are strong links to suggest that the poorer a student’s background, the poorer their academic results will tend to be. My feeling is that one of the main reasons this is happening is that disadvantaged students often feel disenfranchised with school, and the core academic subjects in particular. What the arts and culture can do – and I have seen this first-hand in my own work as Children’s Commissioner – is rekindle these students’ interest and get them engaged in learning again.

A knock on affect from this is that pupils’ overall academic achievement often improves, and this is the key point when it comes to the pupil premium; by spending it on increasing access to the arts and culture, pupil attainment and achievement can be raised across the board. Don’t just take my word for it – take a look at these case studies recently published by the organisation which I chair, A New Direction. They show how a selection of schools - ranging in both size and phase - have raised academic results by using their pupil premium funding to ensure all students have access to a great cultural education. Many of the schools included in the case studies were also previous winners of Pupil Premium Awards.

These studies form part of a campaign currently being run by A New Direction to draw attention to the benefits that spending pupil premium funding on culture and the arts can have for disadvantaged students. Teachers can pledge to Generation Culture to receive further resources to support making the internal case for cultural education.

More importantly though, by signing the pledge you and your school can add your voice to the growing number of schools committing to use their pupil premium funding in this way, and advocate for others to do so. While I would never want to suggest that all pupil premium funding should be spent in this way, I do hope that it may help to begin to show the value that the arts and culture have in helping the students who are most in need.

Professor Maggie Atkinson is chair of A New Direction, London’s flagship cultural education agency. She is a management consultant at iMPOWER, and former Children’s Commissioner for England.

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Maggie Atkinson

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