Pupil Premium: The elephant in the room

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, Headteacher Update

The Pupil Premium is the core strategy for closing the achievement gap and tackling the stark effects of poverty on educational outcomes. But there is an elephant in the room – not every eligible child gets the funding. Pete Henshaw joins the calls for this to change

The time is right for the government to act to make Pupil Premium registration automatic.

The Pupil Premium continues to be at the core of the government’s attempts to close the stubborn attainment and achievement gaps that exist between students from poor families and their wealthier peers.

Furthermore, our schools are increasingly being held to account based on their work to close the gaps in their cohorts and communities – to ultimately improve the progress that every child makes.

However, despite this, the weapon that lies at the heart of this strategy is still, to a degree, hit and miss. This is because the Pupil Premium relies on schools – most notably primary schools, but it is a key issue for secondary schools too – convincing their families to register.

And therein lies the problem – currently large numbers of families do not claim.

The Pupil Premium is based on the free school meals system (although there are other criteria, including looked-after children and those who have recently left the care system).

Encouraging registration for free school meals has always been a challenge for schools and, as we all know, this is actually a much harder nut to crack than one might think. The difference now is that there is so much more riding on free school meal eligibility.

Further complicating the situation, ironically, is universal free school meals for the youngest primary school children – a number of primary schools have struggled to explain to parents why they still need to register for free school meals when their children will be getting them for free anyway.

Ultimately, be it stigma, be it ignorance, be it language or cultural barriers or a failure to understand the system, the fact remains that, while many disadvantaged and vulnerable children are receiving the targeted funding, many are not.

This puts schools in an impossible situation – these “unregistered” children will still have the challenges that poverty or disadvantage bring, but they do not bring schools the additional funding that is often necessary to tackle these barriers to education. Ultimately, schools are losing out on thousands of pounds in funding, but still have the challenge of trying to boost progress and raise outcomes for these children.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has been leading the calls for automatic registration for some time and has repeated the call this week in light of the recent news that Nick Clegg is to chair a Commission on Inequality in Education.

NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said: “Now the Pupil Premium looks set to stay, let’s make sure all children eligible for it actually receive it. Automatic registration, rather than forcing schools to chase parents to disclose their eligibility, could increase take-up significantly, reduce bureaucracy and help cash-strapped families.”

The information is already out there, in the governmental system, about family income, and about the status of children in care. The government might argue that bringing together all this information into a workable registration system is an onerous task for the civil servants involved.

However, the effort and work involved within Whitehall would be a worthwhile investment in terms of the time and bureaucracy it would save schools – leaving them to focus on the core roles of raising achievement and closing the gaps.

One certainly hopes that any reluctance in Whitehall to implement such a system is not down to a reluctance to drive up the cost to the state of the Pupil Premium.

At the end of the day, if the government wants to put the Pupil Premium at the heart of its educational battle against the effects of poverty and disadvantage, and if the government wants to hold schools to account for their performance in this respect, then the time has come for us to remove the elephant in the room and ensure that every children who is eligible receives this vital funding.

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of Headteacher Update and has been writing about education for more than 10 years. Follow him @pwhenshaw

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