Less than half of teachers believe the government’s flagship pupil premium policy has had a positive impact on the disadvantaged children it is designed to help, according to an exclusive YouGov poll for TES.
The findings raise major questions about the way the £2.5 billion funding – targeted at students from poorer backgrounds – has been spent. They come in the same week that chancellor George Osborne announced the policy would continue, against a background of further spending cuts (see page 10).
The YouGov survey finds that a third (34 per cent) of teachers think the pupil premium has had “no effect at all on outcomes” for their most deprived pupils. A further 4 per cent believe the premium has actually had a negative impact on disadvantaged students.
A representative sample of 758 teachers was questioned for the poll last month. Just 43 per cent said the policy has had a positive effect, while 19 per cent said they did not know.
Experts have described the findings as “worrying” and are concerned that too many schools are using pupil premium funds in ineffective ways – for example, reducing class sizes despite only limited evidence that this improves the results of deprived pupils.
David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat schools minister who championed the policy when it was introduced by the coalition government, said the poll revealed an “uncomfortably large group” who believe the policy has had no effect.
Asked why he thought so many teachers were sceptical, Mr Laws said: “It could mean their school leadership team doesn’t know which interventions work best to narrow the gap. Or some schools may be arguing they’ve had budget pressures that mean the extra money hasn’t percolated through in the way we’d want.”
Schools with low levels of pupil premium funding may not have been “disciplined enough” to target the money at their most disadvantaged pupils, he added.
The poll finds that school leaders are more positive than classroom teachers about the premium, which was introduced in 2011 to narrow the gap between pupils from the most deprived backgrounds and their peers.
Fifty-nine per cent of headteachers say the funding has had a positive effect, while 30 per cent say it has had “no effect at all”. Secondary teachers are more sceptical than those working in primaries (see data panel, left).
Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, told TES he thought teachers who said the money had no effect were “probably not using the pupil premium in the ways that the evidence suggests you should do”.
Effective use of teaching assistants, feedback and peer tutoring had been shown to raise deprived pupils’ attainment, he said, adding that he was a “strong advocate” of using the funding to provide CPD for teachers.
“If you’re using it on these key things we believe you’ll see the benefit, but if you’re not then maybe you won’t,” he said.
The findings came as University of Manchester research concluded that the premium had done enough to counter the impact of other government policy on low-income families (see page 18).
The pupil premium fund gives £1,320 to primaries and £935 to secondaries for every pupil on roll who has been eligible for free school meals at any time in the previous six years.
Asked what schools should avoid spending pupil premium money on, Dr Elliot Major said the “big one” was reducing class sizes. “There’s very little evidence it would have a big impact on attainment, and it often detracts from the core issue of the quality of teachers,” he added, although he conceded that in some contexts it could be the right approach.
Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research, conducted last year for the Sutton Trust, found that nearly a quarter of teachers believed pupil premium funds were not being targeted at low-income students in their schools. Teachers said that schools used the cash to raise the attainment of all pupils or to pay for activities that would otherwise have been hit by budget cuts.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The pupil premium is providing vital support to disadvantaged children and helping to ensure every child, regardless of their background, is given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The Public Accounts Committee found that, since [the premium’s] introduction, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has fallen at primary and secondary level.”
Using the funding creatively
Lee Card (pictured), deputy headteacher of Cherry Orchard Primary School in Worcester, says it “took a while” for his school to make effective use of pupil premium funding. “Only in the past two academic years do we feel we have got our head around how best to utilise it,” he says.
Mr Card says his school has moved on from “a mindset of ‘little Frankie has got pupil premium – have we spent anything on her yet? What could we assign against it for the records?’ ” Instead, staff now ask themselves what pupils’ needs are and how they can be supported. Schemes include after-school care.
Reading about Pakeman Primary School in North London, which won a 2013 TES Pupil Premium Award for its innovative use of the money, gave staff the “confidence that we could use the funding in more creative ways that we had previously felt unsure about”.
Making a ‘massive difference’
Nigel Matthias, deputy headteacher of Bay House, an 11-18 comprehensive school in Hampshire, is unsurprised that so many teachers doubt the effectiveness of the pupil premium.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see how [the funding] filters through the system to get to the right youngsters,” he says. “I’ve heard people from other schools say they don’t think it’s made a difference.”
But the premium has “made a massive difference” at Bay House, where about 30 per cent of students receive it, he adds. The school uses the funding to recruit recent graduates in English, maths and science as “pupil achievement tutors”, who work directly with Year 7-11 pupils eligible for the premium.
“It’s like having a private tutor, which kids from affluent backgrounds have had for many years,” Mr Matthias says. “It’s the centrepiece of our pupil premium spend.”
This summer, 87 per cent of the school’s pupil premium students achieved A*-C in GCSE English, compared with 90 per cent of those not eligible for the funding.
Expert view: ‘Don’t lose faith’
Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (a government-funded charity that researches the most effective ways of improving the performance of disadvantaged pupils), writes:
The introduction of the pupil premium provided a laser-like focus on improving results for less advantaged pupils. But five years on, despite our best efforts, the national attainment gap between rich and poor has not greatly shifted.
Just as worrying, a third of teachers (34 per cent) believe the pupil premium has had no impact on their most deprived pupils.
When it comes to pupil premium spending, it can be difficult to see tangible results. It’s certainly too early for us to draw definitive conclusions about whether the policy has been a success or not. But we shouldn’t lose faith.
It is absolutely right that funding should continue to be targeted at all pupils from low-income homes. But we need to make sure the pupil premium is spent effectively. Provision for disadvantaged pupils varies hugely across the country: some schools are closing their gap and others are not.
This inconsistency could go some way towards explaining today’s polling results. And yes, although it is worrying that a third of teachers believe the pupil premium has had no impact on attainment, a larger proportion (43 per cent) believe it has.
I would like to see two things happening to move things forward. First, schools need to view evidence as a crucial tool to inform their decision-making, helping them to identify the “best bets” for their pupil premium spending.
Second, building on the TES-sponsored Pupil Premium Awards, the government should incentivise schools that do the most to improve attainment for their poorest pupils to share best practice with those schools that need support. This would be a major step towards a system that is consistently excellent and in which teachers have faith.