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The government’s schools white paper contains much that is to be welcomed: its focus on teacher quality is long overdue, the decision to benchmark our qualifications against the best in the world is vital for our economy and the pupil premium makes the schools funding system much more transparent.

However, there is a real danger that the pupil premium will not reach the children for whom it is intended.  Under the government’s plans, additional funds will be paid to a school for every pupil it has who is eligible for Free School Meals but schools can spend this money as they please. The policy includes no mechanism to guarantee funds will provide additional support to the individual children who need it.

Indeed Michael Gove’s reforms to qualifications make it less likely that the pupil premium will get to children from low-income families. Under the new system, schools will be held accountable through league tables indicating how many pupils have earned the proposed ‘English Baccalaureate’. Pupils will be awarded an ‘English Bac’ if they attain GCSE grades of A*–C in English, maths, science, a modern language and a humanity.

The English Bac is intended to be the government’s ‘gold standard’ against which schools will be judged. This means that schools will have an incentive to focus extra resources on children who are likely to do well in those subjects, rather than on children receiving free school meals. Indeed the government admits in the white paper that only 4 per cent of FSM pupils would have gained an English Bac this year. In effect, placing the English Bac at the heart of the new accountability framework will provide incentives for schools to divert resources away from FSM pupils.

In our recent report Room for Improvement ( ippr recommends instead that the pupil premium should be properly allocated to children who receive free school meals, through a pupil premium entitlement (PPE). The extra funding should be used for activities such as extra catch-up tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able pupils.

Under our scheme, local authorities would set out a menu of approved activities upon which the money could be spent. The child’s parent and the lead teacher would have to agree at the end of each school year how the following year’s PPE would be spent. This would encourage the development of an individual learning plan for each child and would act as a lever to engage parents, which we know is an important factor in a child’s learning.

The government claims that schools will be encouraged to spend the pupil premium on FSM children because data on the attainment of low income pupils will be included in the school league tables. But the main method of judging school performance will be the number of pupils getting 5 A*-C GCSEs and the new English Bac.  Instead, the government should introduce a new school report card which would give every school a composite score, made up of data on pupil progression, overall attainment and the performance of children on Free School Meals.  This would put narrowing the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils at the heart of the accountability framework and provide real incentives for schools to focus on those children currently being left behind.

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Written by Rick Muir   
Monday, 13 December 2010 00:00
Last Updated on Thursday, 24 March 2011 14:52

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