The pupil premium is additional money given to schools for each child from a poor background. It was a feature of the Lib Dem’s election pledge, and represents a symbol that the parties care about tackling educational inequality.
A recent entry on Conservative Home claims the pupil premium was, in fact a conservative idea, dating from “as early as 2005”. This must come as a surprise to the Institute for Fiscal Studies who observed that the education system (before the election) “already weights funding towards deprived pupils”.
The pupil premium sounds good. The Liberal Democrat 2010 election manifesto pledged £2.5 billion to increase funding to the most disadvantged children, in the form of a pupil premium. Its manifesto estimated there to be around 1 million disadvantaged children. Other sources estimate the figure to be four times higher, however, the Liberal Democrats based their estimate on the number of children receving free school meals, in itself problematic means of measuring the number of children in poverty. So, according to the Liberal Democrats’ figures, this works out at around £2500 for each pupil. Furthermore, the money would go straight into schools’ budgets (the Labour Government’s additional funding went to LEAs) and, the manifesto claimed, could be used for any number of things, including a reducation in class sizes, attracting the best teachers, or improving discipline. All of these ideas are popularist, but are actually quite vague in terms of how they might help break the link between deprivation and poor educational outcomes.
Now in coalition with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats may have to be satisfied with an even more vague pledge of a pupil premium, in that we don’t know how much it is going to be, or where the money is coming from.
While there is talk of tackling inequality, with the supposed evidence in front of us in the form of a pupil premium, educational inequality is still being promoted in the form of, in private education, selection by wealth, and, in the state sector selection on ability. Further, the money to pay for any premium might not be additional funding. As Conor Ryan’s article in the Independent points out, for the premium to make any difference, it needs to be additional money. If school budgets are going to be cut, then a pupil premium isn’t really a premium at all.
The claim that the pupil premium is designed to help the most disadvantaged, helping to break to link between deprivation (however it is chosen to be measured) and poor educational outcomes is pretty thin. The link between social background and educational attainment is a strong and persistent one. Therefore, improving the lives of the most disadvantaged families and children would be a more effective way of tackling educational inequalities. Unfortunately there is little evidence of policies in these areas. In fact, if anything, things are going to get worse. This week, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) issued a press release in which it condemns the recent austerity budget for freezing child benefit, and effectively halting progress towards ending child poverty. It also points out that the increase in VAT will hit the poorest hardest. Incidentally CPAG claims that there are nearly 4 million children in the UK living in poverty. The Liberal Democrats £2.5 billion would have been stretched even further.