Has the pupil premium lost its gloss?

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Children playing
Image caption,
The government has opted for a flat rate of pupil premium for "simplicity"

The upbeat message from the coalition government about school spending - the so-called "rabbit out of the hat" in the spending review - now looks rather less impressive.

Indeed, the rabbit appears to have scurried back down its hole.

It is not just that the promised small "real terms increase" for schools has now evaporated thanks to the latest upwards estimate of the rate of inflation.

Nor is it just that, as the government confirmed in its spending allocations statement, "some individual schools" will not only fail to get a real terms spending increase, but may get an absolute cash terms cut.

But, even more significantly in view of the hype that preceded it, the pupil premium has turned out to be a rather smaller white rabbit than promised.

During the election campaign, the Liberal Democrat manifesto promised a pupil premium worth £2.5bn (the Conservative manifesto was always wary of committing to a figure).

Some experts calculated that could be worth up to £2,000 or more per pupil, depending on how it was distributed.

Now we learn that next year it will be just £430 per pupil - a total of £625m.

True, this total will rise over the next few years until it reaches the promised £2.5bn a year promised in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Phasing in

But there was no mention in the manifesto of it being phased in slowly like this.

So, the reasonable expectation was that it would be worth the full amount from year one. But that is clearly not the case.

Moreover, in a 2008 report he wrote for the think-tank "Policy Exchange", Sam Freedman - who is now Michael Gove's special advisor - estimated the pupil premium would require an investment of £4.6bn a year.

That bold vision has been greatly watered down.

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The government argues that tough financial times call for cuts

There have been some other key changes too. The government's original intention was that the amount of the pupil premium would vary across the country.

The idea was that in areas where per pupil funding was already high, the pupil premium would be relatively small.

And in areas where existing funding per pupil was relatively low (which tends to be areas outside the inner cities), the pupil premium would be relatively more generous.

From poor to richer

The idea was to move towards the position where all pupils from poorer homes received roughly the same amount of money spent on them wherever they lived.

While this might have been fairer (in that a poor pupil would receive the same amount spent on them whether they lived in an affluent suburb or a poor inner city), it would also have had the effect of shifting funding from poorer areas to better-off areas.

Perhaps that is why the government decided not to pursue this approach - at least for now.

Those close to the education secretary say it is still the government's intention to move to a system where the pupil premium varies across the country.

But, for now, they are sticking to the flat rate for "simplicity".

The government has also dodged another challenge it had set itself - namely, finding a fairer way of measuring which pupils should be eligible for the premium.

Image caption,
Eligibility for free school meals is considered a crude measure by some

The problem with the current measure - eligibility for free school meals - is that it under-estimates the number of poor children because many eligible families do not actually claim their free meals.

In a consultation document published earlier this year, the government explored the idea of finding a more sophisticated measure, such as using software packages that analyse the level of poverty in each postcode.

Indeed, in the report cited above, Michael Gove's special advisor, Sam Freedman had also previously said the free school meals measure was "too crude" to be employed for the pupil premium.

In the end, though, the government has, at least for next year, abandoned the attempt to find a better measure and has again opted for "simplicity".

Meanwhile, the toughness of the spending settlement for all schools was underlined by the small print of the government's allocation announcement.

Early intervention

The only assurance being given to any school - in what is officially entitled "the minimum funding guarantee" - is that they will not have more than a 1.5% cash cut in their budget.

The one thing that will save some schools from having to make even deeper cuts is the freeze on public sector pay.

Meanwhile, the latest funding settlement also shows how hard it will be for local councils to fund programmes that are aimed at intervening early with children who are struggling.

The new so-called Early Intervention Grant is being brought in to replace spending on a whole raft of programmes from Sure Start to Connexions, from learning for two-year-olds to short breaks for disabled children. The new Early Intervention Grant will be worth almost 11% less in cash terms than the grants it is replacing.

The government argues that these are tough financial times and they have to put right the financial mess they inherited.

They also point out that even a re-elected Labour government would have made public spending cuts.

But the harsh reality is that the pupil premium policy - which had the potential to change school funding radically - has been hamstrung by the spending climate.

And, even for schools that may benefit from the pupil premium, there are hard times ahead.

Mike Baker is a freelance education journalist and broadcaster

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