We had the news a few days ago that the government has fixed the value of the pupil premium for the coming financial year – it will be £430. The ‘pupil premium’ is the additional sum of money the government is going to pay directly to school for each student on the free schools meals register, the idea being that the school will use that additional money to support children from backgrounds which might be seen to disadvantage them educationally.
On the surface this seems a wholly laudable strategy and purpose. How can anyone argue with the idea that children from deprived backgrounds get some extra support at school? After all, one of the problems repeatedly identified in English (and actually British to a greater extent, as Scotland and Wales are worse) education is the ‘tail’, in other words the large numbers of young people, especially from disadvantaged families, who fall well below average in terms of performance. Perhaps the pupil premium will help schools do something about that.
Or perhaps it’s treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Perhaps the poor performance of the disadvantaged is due to deep rooted attitudes to education and self improvement and to lack of self belief. I came across some fascinating statistics recently. It was an analysis, broken down by ethnic group, of the performance of students on free school meals at GCSE. Taking white boys alone, 51% of those NOT on free school meals got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE in 2009, whereas only 19% of those got free school meals got the same threshold qualification. The gap is just nearly as wide for white girls, and still there but slightly less pronounced for black boys and girls. However, the same analysis for Chinese pupils shows almost no difference at all: 64% of Chinese boys on free school meals got the qualification threshold, compared with 65% of Chinese boys (in England) not on free school meals. So it’s not just about lack of cash or resources – it’s about attitudes to learning and social mobility. The Chinese statistics prove it.
So the pupil premium may be a good idea, but we need to find a way to target resources into changing attitudes, and changing attitudes in families, because these students are learning how to approach education at home way before they come anywhere near a school. Whether a pupil premium will be able to do that or not remains to be seen, but there has been a lot of money prioritised for socially needy communities in the past decade – some of it has had a positive effect, but the overall extent to which it has represented good value has been very mixed. We need to think hard about what the attitudes actually are which militate against many disadvantaged (white, especially) children doing well at school (but absolutely not all – there are many outstanding examples which buck the trend, including in this school) and how best we can change those attitudes using the scarce resources available.