Spending watchdog paints mixed picture of Pupil Premium impact

National Audit Office report says Department for Education's Pupil Premium has used "clear formula to achieve a specific purpose", but says some schools being left with less money overall

By Civil Service World

30 Jun 2015

The Department for Education’s plan to close the attainment gap between rich and poor state school students is having some impact, but the gains could be offset by wider cuts to school funding, the public spending watchdog has said.

Under the Pupil Premium scheme established under the last government, schools are handed extra financial support according to the number of disadvantaged pupils in attendance. According to official estimates, just under a third of children in publicly funded schools are classed as disadvantaged, meaning they have been looked after by a local authority or their family income qualifies them for means-tested free school meals. 

Earlier this year, then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg described the Pupil Premium as the coalition’s "most important lever" for increasing social mobility.

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A new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) expresses cautious optimism about the impact of the Premium to date, with 94% of school leaders now saying they are targeting support at disadvantaged pupils, up from 57% before the introduction of the scheme. 

The Department for Education (DfE) has, according to the watchdog, disbursed the funding “using a clear formula to achieve a specific purpose”.

“The Department gives schools a fixed sum for each disadvantaged pupil, in effect redistributing funding toward schools with more disadvantaged intakes,” the NAO says. “The Department has communicated clearly that the money is to reduce the attainment gap by raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.”

The NAO also praises DfE for encouraging teachers to make sure that the extra funds are spent on effective measures, saying a new research charity set up by the department – the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – has “made a major contribution to strengthening the evidence base for what works to improve disadvantaged pupils’ progress”.

However, the NAO warns that wider cuts to school funding are leaving some institutions with less money overall than they had before, even with the extra support provided by the Pupil Premium.

"Other real-terms reductions in school funding mean the Pupil Premium has not always increased school budgets,”"the NAO says. 

"Over the last four years, the Department has given £6bn to schools under the Pupil Premium policy but reduced other school funding in real terms at the same time. 

"As a result, total per-pupil funding has increased in 55% of schools in real terms, but it has decreased in real terms in the remainder. 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. We estimate that the per-pupil funding of 16% of the most disadvantaged secondary schools fell by more than 5% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15."

As well as raising concern about the overall funding picture, the NAO says the DfE must be more specific about how it intends to measure the success of the Pupil Premium, and says it has "not yet set out, either internally or externally, how it will assess whether the Pupil Premium has achieved a significant impact".

NAO boss Amyas Morse said the "early signs" were that the Pupil Premium "has potential". But he said it would "take time for its full impact to become clear".

"As it takes the policy forward, the Department will need to review whether spending more in this way would allow it to close the attainment gap more quickly," he added. "The high degree of local discretion has benefits and costs. Some schools don’t appropriately focus funding on disadvantaged pupils, and some spend funds on activities which are not demonstrably effective."

A spokeswoman for the DfE said the department remained "determined to ensure that every child, regardless of background, is given an education which allows them to realise their full potential".

She added: "The NAO’s report recognises the important role which the pupil premium has had in improving the educational outcomes, and ultimately life chances of some of the most disadvantaged young people.

"However, we know there is more to be done to tackle educational inequality and we will consider the findings of the NAO report carefully."

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