More must be done to target the Pupil Premium to where it is most needed, a new research study has concluded.
It finds that the often-quoted attainment gap between students who receive free school meals (FSM) and those who don’t is masking other important disparities in achievement within the FSM cohort.
Examples in the study include the difficulties faced by FSM children who have SEN and the performance of those from ethnic minorities.
Researched and written by Charlie Ogilvie, a teacher at Perry Beeches School in Birmingham, the study also finds that regional differences are stark, with FSM children in London far outperforming those from outside the capital.
Mr Ogilvie says that allocation of the Pupil Premium ignores these crucial disparities and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which published the study this week, said that simply using FSM eligibility to target the Pupil Premium was too blunt an approach.
The Pupil Premium is currently worth £600 per pupil although this will rise to £900 this year. A child is eligible if they qualify for FSM or if they have been in continuous care for more than six months (or have met either of these criteria at any point in the last six years). There are currently 1.3 million children who qualify for the funding.
Currently, the headline figure shows that 62 per cent of non-FSM students achieve five GCSEs at A* to C including English and maths (5EM), compared to 34.6 per cent of FSM children – a 27.4 per cent gap. However, Mr Ogilvie points to a number of other statistics that he says are lost within this figure.
He says that FSM students are twice as likely to be identified as having SEN, compared to non-FSM students and that SEN factors could account for up to 10 per cent of the overall attainment gap.
He states: “This disparity is not reflected in the national average attainment gap because that does not consider the fact that FSM and non-FSM populations are different with regards to (the proportion of students who have) SEN.”
And while performance by ethnicity does not vary much for non-FSM students, it varies greatly for those on FSM (between 29 and 50 per cent achieving 5EM across the key ethnic groups).
The report states: “This suggests that ethnicity is a more significant factor for FSM students. The largest attainment gap is for White students (29 to 60 per cent), indicating that the gap between richest and poorest is more pronounced for White students.”
Regional differences are also notable. A total of 31.3 per cent of FSM students outside London achieve the 5EM benchmark, compared to 47.3 per cent in London, a 16 per cent gap.
Mr Ogilvie says that because the Premium ignores regional attainment rates we have a situation where London, which has the smallest attainment gap in the country, receives the most cash because it has the highest number of FSM pupils. Conversely, the South East of England, which has the smallest proportion of FSM pupils has the largest attainment gap.
He also points out that the Pupil Premium ignores the poverty gradient, meaning that all eligible pupils receive the same amount regardless of their relevant disadvantage.
He states: “In reality, a child’s educational performance is directly linked to their level of deprivation. The poorer a student is, the worse they tend to do on average. Based on this, one might expect government funding to increase according to how poor a child is.
“The Pupil Premium gives an equal funding boost for all children in the ‘disadvantaged’ category. Therefore, the evidence shows that such a ‘black and white’ approach ignores the evidence that pupil underachievement is on a sliding scale.”
ASCL deputy general secretary, Malcolm Trobe, said that while the Pupil Premium funding is “welcome and significant” he has concerns about the criteria. He added: “While this report proposes more questions than answers, it does provide clear evidence to show that FSM is a blunt instrument for deciding which pupils warrant additional funding. To be really effective in addressing deprivation and attainment, rather than an ‘all or nothing’ approach, the government could do more to target the funding to where it is most needed. We need a sophisticated and detailed formula for calculating not only the Pupil Premium, but for the whole funding system.”
Mr Ogilvie lists a number of areas for further investigation, including funding for SEN students, increasing the Premium for regions outside London and also for the poorest students within the FSM bracket.
Mr Trobe, meanwhile, has called for action to stop some disadvantaged families from missing out on FSM. Currently, if a family receives Working Tax Credit it loses its entitlement, but ASCL wants all students from families with total incomes, including benefits, below the £16,190 threshold to receive FSM. The Children’s Society has estimated that there are 700,000 children who are living in poverty but not eligible for FSM.
A new Universal Credit benefits system is being phased in from this year and the Department for Education is considering proposals for new FSM eligibility criteria. Mr Trobe added: “Low income families who work must receive equal treatment to those who do not.”
The study, entitled Seeing in Colour, was co-ordinated through the Teach First summer project programme and can be downloaded at www.ascl.org.uk/key_topics/wider_education_reform/social_mobility_/seeing_in_colour