Social mobility efforts are mired in confusion

9th October 2015 at 00:00
The former pupil premium champion argues that the extra funding has huge potential but is hampered by disjointed policymaking

By any standards, Jamie and Karen were disadvantaged. Their father was gone and their mother wasn’t coping; they were in and out of care. For the school where I was headteacher, as in schools everywhere, it was a constant struggle to keep pupils like Jamie and Karen on track. Staff willingly devoted many extra hours to their care, as social services struggled to meet their needs. Teaching them was not easy – these teenagers had too many other issues to deal with.

As a school with a below-average number of disadvantaged pupils, we received no additional funding towards the extra work that we did for the minority of children who needed it. Policies such as Excellence in Cities, introduced in 1999, and others that came afterwards, provided no funding for schools outside the nominated areas.

The point is this: both now and then, the majority of disadvantaged children do not live in disadvantaged areas.

These days, there are two income streams for such pupils in England. Local authorities distributed £2.4 billion of deprivation funding to schools in 2014-15, often based on historic funding practices and without any specific focus or accountability. By contrast, the £2.5 billion of pupil premium funding is clearly targeted and is tied to intelligent accountability for its impact on progress and attainment.

In targeting pupil premium funding at every individual disadvantaged child, the policy has shone a light on the attainment of disadvantaged children in all types of school, in all areas. And rightly so.

Of course, disadvantaged children still do very poorly in some schools. But a number have made an impact with pupil premium funding. In one in six, the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is above the average for all children nationally. Many schools have managed to reduce the achievement gap – often to nearly zero – with some hugely impressive work being done.

This gap has been narrowing at 11 and 16 since the pupil premium started in 2011. The challenge for 2015-16 will be to use the pupil premium to accelerate this process and raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in all schools.

For schools themselves, this means analysing more closely the needs of individual disadvantaged children to overcome their barriers to learning. It means using the evidence of what works – through the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit (bit.ly/EEFtoolkit) and the experience of successful schools – in order to spend the pupil premium as effectively as possible.

According to the largely positive National Audit Office report Funding for Disadvantaged Pupils (bit.ly/FundingReport), 36 per cent of schools are still not using the toolkit – a disappointingly high figure given the value of the information and the breadth of the research on which it is based.

Schools can’t overturn poverty

There is also a wider issue. Matching the challenge for schools is a challenge for government to make its social mobility policies more joined-up.

There is widespread concern that the challenge for schools will become greater as the benefits cap and bedroom tax increase child poverty among both the working and non-working poor, and cuts in funding for social services reduce the support that families are receiving outside school.

The fact is that the pupil premium alone cannot solve the problems created by poverty; other government policies need to support the needs of the disadvantaged, too. Increasing social mobility cannot be left solely to schools.

There are also policy tensions between the pupil premium and some of the education policies introduced since the coalition came to power in 2010. For example: the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance; changes to vocational qualifications; certain subjects being given a reduced status under the English Baccalaureate measure; school accountability being based on students’ first exam entry only; the changes to GCSE grading; and cuts in the careers service. All of these have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children.

The difficult teacher supply situation and substantial funding cuts increase the challenge further. And evidence from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission highlights the increasingly tough social and economic climate for upward mobility, with the labour market structure providing fewer opportunities for high-attaining children from less-advantaged backgrounds to succeed than in the late 20th century.

There is no magic bullet that guarantees success with a disadvantaged child and there are no shortcuts for analysing the barriers to learning of each individual – nor for putting in place strategies that will help them to overcome these barriers. Whether a school has five or 500 children eligible for the pupil premium, the moral imperative is the same.

So the pupil premium must not be absorbed into school budgets to offset cuts elsewhere – as some in the educational community are now suggesting.

The government needs to play its part, too, not only by fulfilling its manifesto commitment to maintain the pupil premium but also by examining all of its policies through the lens of social mobility. Nowhere is joined-up government more important.

Sir John Dunford was the national pupil premium champion from 2013 to August 2015

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