All three of the main political parties in England back the idea of a pupil premium. The policy aims to improve attainment by targeting tuition funding on low-achieving pupils from poor backgrounds. But unlike vouchers, the premium is paid to providers rather than parents.
For Labour, the premium is well behind the promise to increase real-terms spending on 3-16 and 16-19 education and skills by 0.7 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively. But arguably it is only second in Tory education policy behind "free schools". The premium is one of the four non- negotiable policies of the Liberal Democrats if Labour or the Conservatives are to get their support in a hung parliament.
Labour has proposed a "local pupil premium" for low-attaining five- to 16- year-olds from poor backgrounds attending state schools. It would build on existing standard funds paid directly to schools.
Even though Labour's version of the premium is framed in terms of five- to 16-year-olds at school, FE colleges should not be left out. After all, some 7 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds attend general FE colleges one or two days a week, many of them low-attaining pupils from poor backgrounds.
Meanwhile, the Tories propose a pupil premium for five- to 19-year-olds attending state schools. Resources for the proposal would come from brigading around pound;4 billion currently allocated in various standard funds.
Clearly, this premium would exacerbate the "funding gap" between school sixth forms and 16-19 FE colleges. Since most low-attaining young people from poor backgrounds at the age of 16 attend general FE colleges rather than school sixth forms, restricting the premium to school sixth forms would entrench inequality.
There remains the question about whether education maintenance allowances (EMAs) for 16- to 19-year-olds, costing about pound;0.7 billion, would be scrapped by the Tories to augment the premium. But abolishing EMAs to fund a premium runs the risk of undermining post-16 participation in FE as most recipients of the allowance attend college rather than school sixth forms.
By contrast, the Lib Dems propose a premium covering five- to 19-year- olds, with payments to FE colleges and schools post-16, and payment from 16 until the achievement of a level 2 qualification.
Most importantly, the Lib Dems promise pound;2.5 billion of new money to fund the pupil premium paid for by abolishing child trust funds (saving pound;0.5 billion), efficiency savings outside of education (saving pound;1 billion) and restricting child tax credit currently paid to families with income of pound;22,500 to pound;54,000 (saving pound;1 billion).
Inclusion of 16- to 19-year-olds in FE colleges within the pupil premium is welcome, but the impact of scaling back child tax credit on post-16 participation must be assessed. With families on incomes between pound;22,500 and pound;54,000 having their child tax credit cut or stopped, those barely above pound;22,500 and losing out could struggle to support their children to stay on post-16.
And then there is the question of full-time FE from the age of 14, an idea supported by Conservatives and Lib Dems alike. Presumably, the pupil premium would be paid to FE colleges as well as secondary schools. Full- time further education from age 14 is yet another reason why the FE sector should switch on to the pupil premium, whatever the outcome of the general election.
Mark Corney, MC Consultancy.