Why a flagship policy is sailing into choppy waters

10th April 2015 at 01:00
Awards honour pupil premium successes, but future is doubtful

Nick Clegg has described the pupil premium as the "most important lever" that the government has to improve social mobility, and says its introduction was one of the proudest moments in his political career.

But the flagship education policy brought in by the coalition government faces a very uncertain future.

By 2016, the pupil premium will be worth pound;1,320 a year for each eligible primary pupil and pound;935 for secondary students, but neither the Conservatives nor Labour has made a commitment to fund it beyond that.

Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has attempted to highlight the initiative's benefits by creating the Pupil Premium Awards. These showcase the schools that are using the money most effectively to narrow the attainment gap (www.pupil premiumawards.co.uk).

Speaking at the 2015 awards last month, the deputy prime minister said that schools were now seeing the results of the policy. "If all pupil premium schools did as well as the very best, I hope we can see the attainment gap closed in the next decade," he added.

But not all schools are using the pupil premium as effectively as Mr Clegg might hope. According to research published by the thinktank Demos back in February, nationally the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their peers widened slightly at GCSE in 2013-14 for a successive year. Figures also show that the gap increased in more than half of local authorities - 78 out of 152.

However, Kevan Collins, a judge of the Pupil Premium Awards and chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, which funds research in education, said there was a real appetite among the schools he visited to understand what worked.

"There is still a long way to go to break the pervasive link between family income and educational achievement, but if the desire for evidence and enthusiasm for collaboration I saw in the schools I visited are anything to go by, we are on the right path," he writes on the TES website (bit.lyCollinsPremium).

TES spoke to three of the awards' finalists in the key stage 2 primary category to find out how they had used the money.

Parkfield Community School, Birmingham

When Hazel Pulley, headteacher of Parkfield, was handed the first instalment of pupil premium money in 2011, she spent it on teaching assistants because she thought the funding would disappear as quickly as it had arrived. "It was when we realised that the money would keep coming that we gave more careful consideration to how we should spend it," she says.

The school was the key stage 2 national winner at this year's Pupil Premium Awards. It picked up its pound;100,000 prize for implementing a series of programmes that considered the students' social and emotional learning as well as their academic education. The school credits these programmes with helping 78 per cent of its pupil premium students to achieve level 4b in 2014, well above the national average of 53 per cent.

Ms Pulley says she wanted to employ methods that could continue if the pupil premium money was withdrawn in future, as she anticipates.

"We work with a local charity called Mosaic, which provides mentors to our young girls and a central adult in their lives, [such as] their mother or aunt, to inspire them to work hard and engage in education. As it's a charity, it means it won't stop when the pupil premium does," she says.

Similarly, the school has partnered with the charity City Year, which enlists school-leavers and young graduates aged 18-25 to act as volunteers in schools. At Parkfield, the City Year volunteers act as a walking bus to collect students who have difficulty in getting to school on time.

"Some of our pupils were missing out on vital lessons because they were arriving late to school," Ms Pulley says. "Now our permanent staff are part of the programme, so if the money goes the bus will continue."

Liscard Primary School, Wirral

Liscard Primary used its pupil premium money to bring in family support workers to address the wider issues affecting its disadvantaged pupils. Headteacher Rose Littler says the funding has enabled the school to provide "wraparound" support to its most vulnerable children, which has made a "significant difference" to its results.

In 2014, 91 per cent of Liscard's pupils achieved level 4b at key stage 2 and 37 per cent managed level 5, despite more than a third being eligible for free school meals in the past six years.

"Some of our children show some very challenging behaviour and come from homes with parents who have very limited parenting skills," Ms Littler says. "By implementing this formal support programme, we can help families to address their specific needs.

"Unless you get the wider problems right, whatever you put in in the classroom will come right back at you. But we would never have been able to provide this level of support without the pupil premium funding."

As well as providing support workers, the school has put its pupils into ability groups, with those in need of most attention placed in a set of 14 or 15. It also uses non-verbal IQ tests to stretch all its pupils, and to identify the ones who are not reaching their potential so they can benefit from joining high-ability sets.

The prospect of losing the money is a "real fear" for the school, Ms Littler says. "We can see the difference it has made to children's lives. It would destroy a lot of great work we've been doing."

Upton Junior School, Broadstairs

As a junior school, Upton faces peculiar challenges: it takes in children from 14 different feeder schools and deals with students making a transition early on in their school careers.

Despite this, more than nine out of 10 pupils gained level 4b at key stage 2 in 2014 and almost half secured level 5, far more than the national average of less than a quarter of all pupils.

To achieve this, Michaela Lewis, Upton's headteacher, invested the pupil premium cash in additional staff and focused their efforts on improving teaching and learning across the board.

The four-form entry Upton had 33 in each class, which it felt was a little on the large side. The school decided to spend its money on teachers to reduce class sizes for the pupils who were underperforming most badly.

"We created six learning groups for English and maths, with the smallest containing eight pupils with two teachers," Ms Lewis says. "They get the most intense support."

Beyond English and maths, the school has also used the money to hire music, sport and computing specialists to broaden its curriculum.

Losing the funding would have a direct impact on staffing, Ms Lewis adds. "The pupil premium is now a significant percentage of a school's budget, particularly among primary schools. If it is pulled it would have an impact on students because it would hit staffing," she says.

Premium prizes


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today