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What is the Pupil Premium Actually For?

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Climber offering hand to help another climberSpending on the pupil premium is due to rise to £2.5 billion in 2014-15 and it is billed as one of the coalition’s key progressive initiatives. However, effective implementation and informed evaluation of the policy’s impact require clear aims. At present, mixed messages risk compromising this valuable initiative’s success. In this article Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco and Associate Tutor in Canterbury Christ Church’s Faculty of Education, examines four possible goals.

“That is what the Pupil Premium is for: to equip every school to support pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, to help us build a more socially mobile Britain where ability trumps privilege, where effort trumps connections, where sharp elbows don’t automatically get you to the front.”Clegg May 2012

So that’s clear then. We all know what the pupil premium is for: “social mobility”, “supporting pupils”, “trumping privilege”. That sort of thing…

With such mud-clear definitions, schools could be forgiven for wondering what the premium is actually for. Yet with 25 references to the pupil premium in the new Ofsted Inspection handbook it is a critical question for schools.

Speeches, policy documents and research papers indicate four possible purposes for the premium:

  1. Incentivising diversified intake.
  2. Closing the attainment gap
  3. Closing the achievement gap
  4. Improving wider outcomes for disadvantaged pupils

I would argue that the first of these is now largely redundant and that politicians and the Department for Education are placing an unhelpful focus on the second (closing the attainment gap). Instead, schools should focus on the third (closing the achievement gap) and that whilst the current climate makes the fourth (improving wider outcomes) tricky, it should not be neglected.

Diversifying intake

In his book “Market Socialism”, Julian Le Grand argues that a positively discriminating voucher, giving schools extra money for taking poorer pupils, would incentivise taking these children. As such, the pupil premium could be a tool in combatting de-facto school segregation. However, in their 2008 report, Sam Freedman and Simon Horner show that the cost of educating disadvantaged pupils far exceeds the current pupil premium. Perhaps as a result, there has been little reference to this goal in recent years.


Attainment is one of the most frequently used terms in describing the premium’s purpose, but I’d argue it’s also the most misused.

Attainment refers to the absolute levels achieved by pupils, generally the percentage that reach the thresholds of level 4 at Key Stage 2 and 5 A*-C including English and Maths at Key Stage 4. According to the DfE “the pupil premium is additional funding given to schools so that they can support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap”.  DfE press releases also frequently use statistics about the gap between the percentage of disadvantaged pupils and their peers meeting attainment thresholds to justify the premium.

The risk with this is that where pupils are already above Level 4/5A*-C thresholds, schools will not always see them as needing support. This could exacerbate the pernicious problem of focusing on borderline pupils and will mean disadvantaged pupils continue failing to reach their potential. Focusing on attainment overlooks a huge aspect of what is better termed the achievement gap – achievement being the term used for the combination of absolute level attained and progress made.  In 2012, the progress gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers stood at 18% in English and 22% in Maths.


If the pupil premium is genuinely to compensate for disadvantage then it needs to be targeted at more than attainment, otherwise background will still trump potential: whilst a disadvantaged pupil may achieve 5Cs at GCSE, if given opportunities open to their more advantaged peers the disadvantaged pupil might actually have progressed more and achieved much more highly. It would therefore make more sense for the Pupil Premium to target ‘achievement’. Ofsted have explicitly recognised this, stating that the best schools “never confused eligibility for the pupil premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels”.

Ofsted’s new Inspection Handbook also instructs inspectors to consider “difference in achievement between those for whom the pupil premium provides support and other pupils in the school, including: gaps in attainment, in particular in English and mathematics, (and) differences in progress from similar starting points”. Yet whilst Ofsted are successfully shifting the emphasis to progress, the DfE and politicians need to start doing the same.

Wider Outcomes

I’m not alone in thinking that if disadvantaged pupils caught up with their peers and gaps in exam results disappeared, it would be a huge success; but it would not be enough in and of itself. Children’s future life chances hugely depend on exam results, but not only on them. At times this seems to be recognised by both the DfE and Ofsted. For example, in its report on how schools are spending the premium Ofsted commends schools which “worked to improve pupils’ social and emotional skills” and which “considered how funding could be used to extend pupils’ experiences and skills beyond their academic gains.” That said, they tend to treat ‘wider outcomes’ as intermediary outcomes- beneficial because they remove ‘barriers to learning’, rather than as goods in themselves. Yet Ofsted’s message is mixed, they also seem to praise premium funded interventions which make pupils “more confident in their main classes” and where parents have reported that “the children were happier and their behaviour was more settled at home”. Similarly, the DfE has said (admittedly back in 2011) that the Pupil Premium exists “to ensure they [disadvantaged pupils] benefit from the same opportunities as pupils from less deprived families”.  It has also published case studies of schools which used the pupil premium to increase pupils’ “confidence and presentation skills”. Neither Ofsted nor the DfE therefore seem uninterested in wider outcomes, and they are also without doubt a priority for schools; Indeed, a recent evaluation of the pupil premium showed that confidence is the second most tracked outcome amongst primary schools (for secondaries it is only 5th).

Table showing measures schools looked at to monitor the impact of support for disadvantaged pupils

Time for clarity
If schools are to make the most of pupil premium funding, policy makers need to end the guessing game by introducing some consistency and clarity into their language. They should stop using the inadequate term ‘attainment’ and switch to ‘achievement’. They should also come to an agreed position on wider outcomes: whilst they are difficult to track, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ outcomes need to be improved if disadvantaged pupils’ life chances are finally to come into line with their more privileged peers… and I guess that’s probably what Clegg meant by a ‘socially mobile Britain’.

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One Response to What is the Pupil Premium Actually For?

  1. Danielle Hogsett Wednesday, 7 January 2015 at 21:13 #

    The difference between the attainment and achievement is that attainment is achieving a goal and achievement is doing something successfully. The outcome we want from the pupil premium is to give disadvantaged children extra help to bring them up academically with their more privileged peers, both words and definitions is what we want for a end goal. So what does it matter?
    The government needs to spend less time on wording and more time making the pupil premium work effectively. At the moment within the best schools out of the disadvantaged schools, those ones with the best leaders are closing the attainment/achievement gap, but some of the disadvantaged schools need more help to close the gap. The schools are supposed to have an understanding of what is best for their students to help them with the achievement goals to close the attainment gap. That is the sole purpose of this policy. It is essential that the government should come to an agreed position on the wider outcomes so disadvantaged pupils’ life chances are going to come into line with their more privileged peers. They need to keep up the help with the achievement gap, this is because as soon as they reach the closure point with their more privileged peers, it may fall and the gap could re-open and start to widen again through school.
    Is the question we should be asking is are we closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children or are we lowering the standards of the high achievers so it looks like the disadvantaged pupils are achieving. When the schools have to release the information about where they are spending the money and show if their process is working by showing how well the disadvantage children are doing. The schools should also release the marks of the high achievers so we know the premium is working and the government are not trying to lower the privileged peers.