A key element of the government’s school funding system is a “blunt instrument” that fails to recognise the extra needs of the most disadvantaged pupils it was designed to help, according to new research.
Professor Stephen Gorard has found that the way pupil premium funding is allocated does not take into account important distinctions between the poorest children and those on the threshold of poverty.
His study shows that the poorest pupils – who have always received free school meals (FSM) – consistently achieve lower grades at school than pupils who have sometimes been eligible for FSM. Yet, both groups are receiving the same pupil premium school funding.
The Durham University academic warned that this could make official judgements on how well schools use the extra funding “intrinsically unfair”. “We’re comparing children who are on the threshold – who might drop into [FSM] eligibility or drop out again, depending on their life circumstances – with those families who are disadvantaged for as long as the child is at school. We may be unwittingly unfair to the most disadvantaged,” Professor Gorard said.
The pupil premium was introduced in 2010, and now offers schools additional funding for every pupil who has been entitled to receive FSM at any point over the past six years. Primary schools receive £1,300 per eligible pupil, and secondary schools £935 per pupil.
But, Professor Gorard argues: “Put simply, some FSM-eligible pupils will be poorer than others.”
After analysing the results of every 15-year-old attending a state school in 2013, the academic found that those pupils who have never been eligible for FSM scored the highest grades. Those who were not FSMeligible, but had been in the past and could be entitled to pupil premium funding, achieved slightly lower grades. Those who were eligible for FSM at the time of the study were the lowest performers of all.
He also found that, on average, the longer pupils had been eligible for FSM, the worse their results were.
Schools are currently recognised by Ofsted for reducing the gap between the achievement of pupil-premium children and their more advantaged classmates.
But, Professor Gorard said, the size of this gap depends on where on the spectrum of disadvantage its pupil-premium students fall.
“We’ve got a clear social gradient. We could use that to target more directly those pupils who need the pupil premium the most. It’s rather a blunt instrument at the moment,” he said. “I don’t want to come across as not a fan of the pupil premium. It’s more: can we do better with what we have?”
Consistency doesn’t matter
But Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that his union’s research did not find any significant differences between the pupils dipping in and out of FSM eligibility and those who received free meals consistently.
“Some youngsters on FSM are going to do very, very well, and some youngsters not on free school meals are going to struggle and need assistance,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesman said that the pupil premium was “helping the most disadvantaged pupils”.
“To ensure no child who needs it misses out on this vital funding, any child eligible for free school meals over the past six years is entitled to it,” he added.