Bright, poor pupils may lose in funding shake-up

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
Pupil premium rethink could divert money to less able children

Bright pupils from poor homes could lose out in a funding shake-up being considered by ministers, TES has learned.

Ministers are discussing a plan to give extra pupil premium cash to disadvantaged children who start school with low levels of attainment, paid for by cutting the pupil premium funding for higher-attaining pupils.

But the government’s former national pupil premium champion has voiced concern about the proposal, saying it would be a departure from the “important principles” that schools should have the freedom to decide how to spend pupil premium cash and that the funding should support all disadvantaged pupils.

The idea is also being opposed by influential social mobility charity the Sutton Trust.

A Department for Education source told TES that several headteachers and funding experts had lobbied for a shift in the distribution of the £2.5 billion pupil premium funding pot away from higher-attaining disadvantaged pupils.

The idea was first set out in a report published last year by the Fair Education Alliance. The group, which aims to close the achievement gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers, includes Teach First, the NAHT headteachers’ union and children’s charity Barnardo’s.

The alliance suggested changing pupil premium funding to “give double-weighting to those low-income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend”. It said the change would make it easier for schools to help low-attaining disadvantaged pupils to “catch up” with their peers.

High-achievers ‘need support’

But John Dunford, national pupil premium champion until this summer, told TES the proposal was “of concern” as he believed the funding should “give a leg up to bright, poor children”. “The pupil premium is almost as much for the social mobility of bright children from poor backgrounds as it is for others,” he said.

Mr Dunford said the plan also risked creating the impression that schools should spend an exact amount of pupil premium money on each child, rather than using it for “whole-school strategies” such as attracting good teachers.

But Brett Wigdortz, founder and chief executive of Teach First, backed the idea. “Those who face the double disadvantage of a low-income background and starting school already behind their peers face the greatest challenge and need our attention and support,” he said.

The plan is being discussed amid talks on a new “national fair funding formula”, which would overhaul school funding and is widely expected to redistribute money from schools in inner London to those outside the capital that have historically received lower levels of funding. Kathy James, deputy general secretary of the NAHT, said the pupil premium change “makes sense” but would need to be “managed carefully”.

But Denis Oliver, headteacher of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School in Cheshire (see panel, below), told TES that the proposal risked halting the progress of high-achievers. “If someone happens to be a high attainer at primary school, if we don’t spend money on them they may stop being a high attainer,” he said.

‘We must not discriminate’

Research by the Sutton Trust, published in June, shows that highly able pupils from poor homes are more than twice as likely as their wealthier classmates to fall behind at school by the age of 16. Bright, disadvantaged pupils score an average of four As and four Bs at GCSE, while their equally able classmates from better-off backgrounds gain an average of eight straight As.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, the trust’s chief executive, told TES: “It’s important for social mobility that the pupil premium continues to be paid for all disadvantaged pupils, without discrimination between and low and high attainers.”

TES has also learned that the government may incorporate pupil premium money into schools’ core budgets, in an attempt to make deprivation funding fairer. DfE officials and ministers are considering how to overhaul the national school funding formula ahead of the government-wide spending review due to be announced next month.

Another option understood to have been discussed involves increasing the pupil premium budget by cutting funds from the deprivation element of the national school funding formula.

A DfE spokesman said: “We are committed to protecting pupil premium funding and we are looking at ways to deliver on our commitment to make school funding fairer.

“We think the pupil premium works well, but are always looking at ways to improve it.” He said he could not confirm if the pupil premium would remain as a separate funding stream.

Backing bright children ‘is crucial’

“It’s more or less what we do already,” says Denis Oliver, headteacher of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive in Cheshire, when asked about the proposal to spend more pupil premium money on lower-attaining deprived pupils than their higher-attaining counterparts.

“But at the moment it’s us who have the flexibility to decide to do that. We allocate the pupil premium according to need, and we’ve been very successful in closing the attainment gap.”

However, he says it is still crucial that able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds receive pupil premium funds. “With our more able pupils we’ve been able to enrich the curriculum, which has resulted in them achieving higher grades,” he adds.

Mr Oliver (pictured) says it is important that schools, rather than the government, can decide how to share pupil premium funds between students, because they can respond to individual needs.

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