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4 August 2015
Last month, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard evidence on funding for disadvantaged pupils, following the publication of a report by the National Audit Office (NAO). One stream of funding for disadvantaged pupils is allocated through the Pupil Premium, which provides schools with dedicated funding for each pupil receiving Free School Meals. Around two million pupils fell into this category in 2014-15.
While the policy is in its infancy, the NAO’s survey of how schools are spending these funds suggests there is a risk of schools “wast[ing] money on ineffective activities”. The report highlights a number of areas where oversight of this spending is weak. It is crucial the Government gets this right to ensure the Pupil Premium has the biggest possible impact on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
The Pupil Premium is one of the few areas of school funding targeted at a specific group of pupils. Schools are held accountable for this spending in a number of ways. The school league tables report on the attainment gap between disadvantaged and other pupils, and Ofsted inspectors assess the reduction of this gap, the progress of disadvantaged pupils, and the strength of governors’ oversight. Schools are also expected to produce annual Pupil Premium statements showing how they have allocated the funds. Alexis Widdowson, Principal of Berwick Academy, argues that this “scrutiny…is encouraging headteachers to think very carefully about what they give to pupil premium students”.
In theory, schools are held more accountable for the Pupil Premium than other areas of expenditure. But does this additional focus help schools use the funding wisely? The evidence is mixed. The NAO report shows there is an under-usage of highly effective and inexpensive measures to reduce the attainment gap. Peer-to-peer tutoring, for example, is only used by 25 per cent of the surveyed schools. Moreover, there is an over-use of costly interventions that show low to moderate levels of effectiveness. 71 per cent of the schools surveyed by the NAO choose to hire additional teaching assistants, which is a costly measure and only yields a low level of effectiveness according to the Education Endowment Foundation.
This highlights problems with the Pupil Premium oversight and accountability system. Only a third of schools fully complied with the annual statements, and Ofsted inspections provide a limited view of schools’ use of these funds. In addition, Pupil Premium Reviews, performed by experienced school leaders appointed by the Government, are reported to be of variable quality.
Instead, schools are turning to each other for advice and support. 87 per cent of schools surveyed used internal monitoring and evaluation to identify best practice, and 71 per cent used advice from other schools. While this may highlight a lack of advice within the Government’s own oversight mechanisms, it clearly illustrates that greater accountability does not always crowd out collaboration.
Eleonora Harwich, Research Assistant, Reform