Pupil Premium: A gap that’s proving hard to shift

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Opportunities? Scarborough is one of the government’s new ‘Opportunity Areas’, due to receive extra funding to boost social mobility. But is the Pupil Premium strategy working across England as a whole? (Image: Adobe Stock))

The government has made it clear that narrowing the gap between those who are disadvantaged and their peers is a priority. Five years after the introduction of the Pupil Premium, are we any closer? Suzanne O’Connell takes a look

Since 2011, when the Pupil Premium was introduced, the gap between pupils on free school meals and other pupils reaching the expected standard had been closing at key stage 1.

For example, a gap of 12 per cent in maths in 2010 had reduced to eight per cent in 2015. Although still leaving some way to go, it now seems, that even this modest gain has suffered a set back. Following this year’s key stage 1 assessments the gap appears to have widened again to 18 per cent in maths.

The fall in the number of children reaching the expected standard this year was not surprising. The increase in difficulty of the tests was openly discussed. However, that this increase in difficulty should have hit disadvantaged children harder is both worrying and interesting.

Mike Parker, director of SCHOOLS NorthEast – a regional network of schools – believes that there are a number of factors that mean the gap has widened again.

He told Headteacher Update: “For children with deprived backgrounds it will take even longer to meet the increased challenge. There needs to be a good look taken at the impact of assessment at all levels.”

Mr Parker believes that parents’ ability to help their children with ever challenging homework can make it more difficult for disadvantaged children to keep up with their class mates.

“Parents were just about able to help with homework at primary level. Now in year 5 some of them are struggling to support with literacy and in year 3 with maths in some cases,” he continued.

When it was launched, the Pupil Premium was heralded as the means by which disadvantaged children would be enabled to “benefit from the same opportunities as pupils from richer families”. So why does this gap still seem to so much of a challenge?

Pupil Premium – success or failure?

In June 2015, the National Audit Office (NAO) published the report Funding for Disadvantaged Pupils. The aim of the report is to examine if the Department for Education (DfE) is achieving its objective of narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and other pupils. It is far from conclusive.

In 2014/15, the Pupil Premium was worth £2.5 billion distributed among the two million children between the ages of four and 16 who are currently considered to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. To help schools spend the money effectively, the DfE has given grants of £137 million to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to be spent over 15 years researching and trialling the most effective approaches and interventions. In spite of this spending and other incentives such as the Pupil Premium Awards, the success of the strategy appears to be floundering.

The NAO is not conclusive as to whether the money has been well spent or not. The report states: “The attainment gap has narrowed slowly since 2011 but the gap remains wide and it will take time for the Pupil Premium’s impact to become clear.”

The NAO recommends that: “As the impact of the Pupil Premium will take a long time to be fully realised, the DfE needs to do more to demonstrate its emerging benefits in the meantime.”

But are schools really in receipt of extra funding? Pupil Premium would seem to be increasingly propping up budgets rather than being seen as additional money.

The NAO points out that 47 per cent of schools were using the Pupil Premium to support pupils with SEN, constituting a risk that the Pupil Premium is replacing instead of supplementing SEN funding.

Schools are also using the money generically, with 77 per cent of schools using at least some of the Pupil Premium funding for activities that support all pupils rather than just those who are disadvantaged.

The NAO emphasises that there has been a real-term reduction in school funding: “Some schools with very disadvantaged intakes have less money per-pupil now, in real terms, than in 2010, despite the extra funding provided by the Pupil Premium.”

Schools also come in for criticism as it is noted how they continue to use Pupil Premium money to fund strategies that are not endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation. For example, it is claimed that 71 per cent of schools employ extra teaching assistants to support disadvantaged pupils, “a high cost approach which will only improve results if schools learn to deploy these staff more effectively”, according to the NAO.

This belief that school are still not yet using the money wisely has fuelled the development of the Pupil Premium Review and the requirement for schools to publish their Pupil Premium strategy online. The government remains committed to this approach and seeks further evidence of what does and doesn’t work.

It’s not just schools

What quoting overall figures does not reveal is the discrepancies between the attainment of different groups of disadvantaged pupils. It is not the case that all disadvantaged pupils lag behind their advantaged peers. Poverty does not have the same impact on all communities and this implies that there are other factors making a difference than just how schools spend their Pupil Premium allocation.

For example, according to the Sutton Trust’s research, Chinese, Bangladeshi and African pupils’ GCSE results have improved dramatically over the last decade. Of pupils with Chinese backgrounds there is only a three percentage point difference between the GCSE results of disadvantaged and advantaged teenagers. This contrasts starkly with that for White working-class pupils whose score is the worst of all.

One outspoken curriculum expert from the Netherlands’ National Institute for Curriculum Development has openly criticised other governments for being too optimistic about the difference that schools can make. Professor van den Akker has said: “Housing, income, the labour market, the health sector – you name it, many factors and perspectives are important for addressing equity issues. Why so much emphasis on placing all of the burden on education? It’s overly optimistic.”

Meanwhile, Professor Sonia Blandford, CEO of Achievement for All, wrote in School Improvement recently: “Having travelled around the UK, it is increasingly apparent to me that there are whole communities where there is no aspiration. Places where people don’t breathe.”

It will take more than additional Pupil Premium to create the ground change needed here.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the government has introduced the concept of “Opportunity Areas”. The six areas named so far are Norwich, Blackpool, Derby, Oldham, Scarborough and West Somerset – areas where social mobility is proven to be low. These areas are set to receive £60 million of funding and will benefit from a teaching and leadership innovation fund. That this project is termed a “social mobility package” once more places education at the forefront of England’s inequality issues.

However, there is no equivalent of the EEF for government spending. Who knows whether the invention of Opportunity Areas will be sufficient to raise aspiration and reward it with real jobs and improved prosperity.

In the meantime, the jury remains out on the success of the Pupil Premium in bringing hope and a window of opportunity to those families who need it most. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Funding for Disadvantaged Pupils, National Audit Office, June 2015: www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Funding-for-disadvantaged-pupils.pdf

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
About Us

Headteacher Update is the only magazine delivered directly to every primary school headteacher in the UK. It is published six times a year, at the beginning of each term and half-term, to keep headteachers up-to-date with everything going on in primary education.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.