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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

The pupil premium and narrowing the attainment gap

The Fair Education Alliance is a coalition of 25 organisations whose goal is to "Significantly narrow the achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers by 2022." NAHT is a member of this alliance. The arguments here however represent my own views and do not claim to represent the views of other alliance members. 

In late 2014 the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) published a report card, attempting to measure the extent of, and trends in, education inequality. It made a number of recommendations for reducing such inequality. 

One of these recommendations concerned the formula for allocating pupil premium. The report recommended that "Schools should be given more support to ‘catch up’ disadvantaged pupils who fall behind. The current amount of pupil premium allocated per disadvantaged pupil should be halved, and the remaining funds redistributed to those pupils who are disadvantaged and have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend."

It did not say so explicitly but this recommendation appears in the context of goals for secondary schools. A later report proposed similar measures in relation to primary schools. 

It is worth noting that the proposal did not, of course, sever the link between funding and socio-economic disadvantage. All children from poor backgrounds attract some pupil premium funding. However those who are both poor and low attainers would attract more. Those who are poor and high attainers would attract less. A wealthy low attaining pupil would attract no additional funding. 

Currently, the primary pupil premium is significantly greater than the secondary amount. There is clear precedent for differential amounts of pupil premium. It would not be tenable that equity or fairness can only be served by awarding equal amounts of premium. Indeed the whole philosophy behind the premium is that fairness is predicated on differential amounts of funding. The basis for that difference is the contentious point as there are many goals attributed to education. 

Tim Dracup, blogging as Gifted Phoenix, has criticised this recommendation. Tim is an advocate for the needs of gifted and talented students. Tim's first objection was that the recommendation "...shift[s] the accountability focus to prioritise the achievement and progress of disadvantaged low attainers over disadvantaged middle and high attainers."

This is true. Whether you think it is a good or bad thing, however, would depend on your goals for education and your interpretation of equity. Tim supplies one interpretation later in his original critique, stating "Disadvantaged learners should not be penalised on the basis of their prior attainment. That is not ‘A fair education for all’, nor is it consistent with the ‘sound moral argument for giving every child an equal chance to succeed' mentioned in the executive summary of the report card."

This strong emphasis on social mobility rather than attainment is shared by a number of other organisations and individuals and is certainly the basic intent behind the premium. 

It is certainly a plausible and creditable position on equity. But it is not the only such position. An equally moral stance could be made that equity in education consists in ensuring first that all students achieve a certain level of competence and that therefore more should be invested in those furthest from that threshold. (Please note that I am not saying the work stops at that point.) One rationale for this position would be that once individuals have passed a certain threshold they have a capacity for self-improvement whereby they can extend their own education and create opportunities. Below this threshold, such self-determination is significantly harder. Thus it could be more valuable to spend more resources lifting a student to this threshold than to continue to stretch a student already beyond the threshold. To take one hypothetical example, if you face two students and possess only limited teaching time. One is illiterate and could be taught to read; the other is fully literate but could be taught to read more fluently. How do you divide your time? Solid arguments could be made for equal division, spending more time with the illiterate student or even spending all your time with the illiterate student. None of these positions is inherently less ethical or more ideological than the others.

In an ideal world, one could and would serve the different needs of both students. In a world of scarce resources, however, trade offs must often be made: it usually a matter of emphasis or priority rather than either/or. The FEA proposals have made one such trade off. It reflects a different definition of equity than Tim's but it is certainly not inherently wrong. 

But, for the purpose of clarity, it is the case that the FEA proposals suggest more funding to, and therefore prioritise the needs of, low attaining disadvantaged students over high attaining disadvantaged students. They do not ignore the needs of high attaining deprived students as, under the proposals, they still attract additional funding. I think this is probably the right choice to make although I can understand and respect the opposing view. I would like to see continued support and investment for disadvantaged high attainers but I would welcome a little extra for disadvantaged low attainers. 

Tim advances a number of other objections in both his original and a second critique. Some of these relate to which part of the funding formulas should be used to address which goals. It is understandable to go here as some of the arguments used in defence of the recommendations concern school level funding imbalances. But I personally think these are secondary to the main argument. It is not really useful to argue about how to fund low prior attainment if you do not believe low prior attainment should be specifically funded. The FEA is proposing that a change to the allocation of pupil premium will narrow the gap in attainment by incentivising schools to focus on catching up lower attaining pupils. The debate stands or falls on whether this is the right thing to do. Whether you achieve the goals through the pupil premium or the base funding formula you would still be making choices about which disadvantaged group to prioritise. 

Possibly Tim is also arguing that some level of support for low prior attainment is justified but that the pupil premium is not the right mechanism to address this. This is potentially a tenable line of argument that I would need to understand further. However, in a limited overall budget, alterations to the base funding formula will come at the expense of the amount of pupil premium, or vice versa, so it comes to the same decision on priorities in the end; the argument just moves to a different part of the system. If there is something specific about the pupil premium mechanism which makes it only suitable for social mobility goals and no others it would be worth hearing; although that principle has already been violated in the current pupil premium formula as it is also connected to age for example - a young disadvantaged pupil receives more money than an older disadvantaged pupil. 

I do think that Tim raises legitimate concerns about the level of detail in the calculations. Although to be fair to the alliance the original report was a high level paper proposing a number of ideas. I don't imagine anyone would develop them further without modelling. In particular, though, given that there are more middle and high attainers than low attainers, it is legitimate to question the amounts proposed to be reallocated from the middle and high groups to the low as this could well overcompensate. I would be happy if the alliance reviewed this. 

Tim does however raise the additional concern that the methods chosen to address goal two of the alliance (gaps in secondary attainment) may conflict with goal five, "narrowing the gap in university graduation from the 25 per cent most selective universities".I think this is a fair argument that the alliance should reflect on. 

Tim also points out that there is already catch up funding for low attainers. This is correct but it is also not a complete rebuttal alone, for the obvious response would be, 'it is not enough.' This could be resolved empirically by discovering just how much funding is required on average to enable a low attainers to catch up with their peers.

In conclusion, for me, this is an argument about competing priorities in education in a world of limited resources. We have a duty both to promote social mobility and to catch up low attainers, the FEA recommendation focuses more resources on one than the other. We should protect and value the pupil premium; it is a good initiative in its current form but it is also worth asking whether it can be enhanced. NAHT has not developed a formal policy on this matter, so these views stand in lieu of a vote or stance for now.



08 May 2015