We need more time for Premium impact

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It is far too early to be issuing threats over Pupil Premium impact in schools. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw urges Ofsted to leaves schools to get on with their work.

You cannot help but smile at the headline of Ofsted’s recent statement to the press. It read: “Schools should ensure that all pupils achieve their best.”

Well thanks for that Ofsted – as pearls of wisdom go, it’s a corker and has certainly earned its place in the archive at the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious.

This revelatory headline came alongside Ofsted’s Pupil Premium report, which held some interesting findings (see the full SecEd report here). Right now I am particularly focused on the Premium because SecEd publishes its latest Guide To inside this edition. It looks at how schools can meet their duties to report on, and show the impact of, their Pupil Premium spending (download it at www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements).

Coming back to Ofsted’s findings. It is no surprise that only 10 per cent of school leaders reported a significant change in how they supported disadvantaged pupils as a result of the Premium. It is no surprise, too, that schools were not disaggregating the Premium funding from their main budgets. And it is no surprise that 40 per cent of schools had used the funding to pay for teaching assistants.

Why? Well first, despite the government’s spin, school budgets are not and have never been protected under this administration and the Premium has been taken from this very same budget – it is not new money, we all know this.

As such, it has only made a real difference to the budgets of very deprived schools. And it is these schools that have transformed working practices. 

Don’t misunderstand me – I am delighted that this is the case and that we are seeing an impact in the most deprived schools already. But to expect a transformation in schools in areas of relative advantage specifically because of the Premium is unreasonable. And to imply that all schools have extra funding because of the Premium, as ministers often do, is misleading. 

I am pleased Ofsted busts this myth. Its report quotes one head as saying: “The Pupil Premium has enabled the school at a time of significant cutbacks to continue pre-Pupil Premium provision. For example, class sizes have not had to increase.”

My second point – for many schools, keeping Premium funding as a separate pot of money is pointless because it is a relatively small amount – less than £40,000 for the bulk of the schools Ofsted surveyed. Combining it with main funding, as long as you have a clear audit trail and can show that it is going where it is meant to, is quite sensible.

My third point is for schools. I understand why many heads have used the funding for teaching assistants, but I would urge them to consider the findings of the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation toolkit on spending the Premium (http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit). Spending the money on teaching assistants is rated as “very low to no impact” and “high cost”. It suggests much more effective, and cheaper, approaches.

As I have said, the findings of the Ofsted report will be of use in analysing and teasing out best practice – but we must surely emphasise that it is far too early to expect mountains to have been moved.

Disadvantaged schools which are receiving £200,000-plus are, of course, reporting a transformed approach and this is brilliant news and heartening in these days of a widening gap between the haves and have nots. But for schools receiving less than £5,000, what impact are we expecting? For many, the money is not even enough to cover their budget shortfalls.

In this context, I am disturbed by the recommendation in the report that if schools do not target Pupil Premium money “effectively”, then “government should consider ring-fencing, payment linked to outcomes, or other mechanisms to improve its use”. A nice open brief for the government to interpret in any way it sees fit. We shall have to see what happens on that front. In the meantime, how about this as an addition to the archives at the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious: “Schools cannot spend what they don’t have.”



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