Is the pupil premium a silver bullet for social mobility?

For the pupil premium to effectively improve societal issues, more training, frameworks and parental engagement are required, argues inclusion expert Daniel Sobel
The achievement gap that the pupil premium intends to solve is rooted in wide societal issues. Many critics have argued that throwing money at schools won't change the underlying problems that affect students on free school meals (FSM), and it's been reported that the initiative isn't having the desired impact on FSM students' progress.

Surprisingly, the Department for Education (DfE) hasn't given schools advice on what to do with their pupil premium. The message from government seems to say: "We've done our bit, we've put FSM right at the top of the agenda, we've secured £4 billion, and it's now up to you to work out how to spend it – just make sure to get results."

A headteacher once told me of his concerns about the sudden hunt for outstanding results from FSM students and questioned how it could wave a magic wand. How can we expect secondary schools to solve a problem that emerged when their students were in nursery with a literacy gap evident from as young as three years old?

But the pupil premium policy, for all its problems, may bring about significant changes for some of our most vulnerable students. With the right ingredients, resources and focus it could be one of the few government initiatives to really address social migration. Here are four potential game-changing shifts that the policy might induce:

Re-thinking our labels

One key positive outcome could involve labelling FSM students in a new way – moving from "most likely failures" to "potential successes". The problems brought on by labelling have been the bugbears of sociologists for decades. But the new focus on FSM attainment and progress requires us to rethink our labels: we identify the students of potential concern and we drag them kicking and screaming to success. I am not convinced this will give birth to a considered strategic approach, but it will give every head of department a worthy mission – to get their teachers to view FSM students as the focus group as opposed to the forgettable group. If attitudes shift in this way, the pupil premium will have done a miraculous thing.

Return on investment

An obvious positive change for many schools is the focus on the relationship between budget and provision. A school must demonstrate how every penny of the additional £900 per student is spent. There are definite drawbacks in the inevitable cutting of extracurricular activities, but the focus on return on investment, has the potential to encourage a new way of thinking where all spending must be directed towards specific student objectives and outcomes. This may sound rather clinical and business-like, but it's a valuable skill in managing school communities. This could be a massive shift for education, but only as long as return on investment stands alongside the less tangible or easily measurable extracurricular, and doesn't replace it.

Tracking and monitoring

Schools must now be savvy in tracking and monitoring students, both in general terms and specifically with the FSM cohort, which has been ignored for too long. Staff in all schools must now be up to speed with computer programmes that carefully measure progress across the whole school community. An ability to use the data systems isn't enough; the pupil premium system demands that all teachers also need to be adept at reading their data, drawing conclusions and making recommendations from it.

A call to arms

Senior leadership teams have always sought to understand the progress of their most vulnerable students. But with the new policy, senior leaders have been galvanised to look afresh at the facilities and provisions for FSM students and their parents. The pupil premium has spurred schools to address this issue, and be ambitious, targeted and even time-pressured as never before.

Ensuring that these positive changes come about is vital. We need to ensure that the pupil premium budget is put to good use. Here are six ways that it can achieve results:

    • Head teachers and school staff must receive training on how to spend the pupil premium. The pressure on heads to succeed with their FSM students is intense; failure with this cohort could impact their Ofsted inspections and their careers. But why should staff know what to do? Training to implement the pupil premium – to determine where it fits between pastoral and curriculum provisions, and to support staff across the school – is lacking.
    • Schools must work together. The issues are far bigger than individual institutions; they span geographic regions, student phases, cultures and communities. For example, feeder schools could pool their pupil premium resources, and develop communication and transition planning to address wider concerns.
    • Clarity of thinking comes from clarity of systems. We need a single, coherent, flexible and nationally-used system which can be tailored to each school's needs and is internally managed. It's a waste of resources for each school to create their own system which only generates the right table or graph to demonstrate the most attractive trajectory.
    • Schools need the time and room to experiment and be creative with their pupil premiums. A focus on return on investment runs the risk of foregoing the discovery of better ways of working. Each school should nominate and train a pupil premium champion. These champions should be brought together in large groups to share their insights, experiments and explorations. Schools need training from experts, of course, but they can learn the most from each other. Innovations that address the underlying issues require resources – perhaps a percentage of each pupil premium should go towards continuous improvement and learning.
    • We must think beyond the school because education isn't about schools alone. Education affects and is affected by poverty, jobs and social migration. It's directly related to housing, health and social care as well as pathways, apprenticeships and opportunities – we could add in many more factors. The FSM issue will be addressed most efficiently by multi-agency approach. If those working in health, care and education can communicate effectively with each other, it would be a good starting point.
    • Parents are key. Schools must engage with parents; all the key studies into FSM conclude that parental influence is crucial. It is unclear where the current provision brings them into the equation. Schools need to work with other agencies to establish parental involvement to raise aspiration, expectation and an appreciation of career opportunities.

The pupil premium has the capacity to bring about tectonic shifts in education, but for societal issues to be improved, we need proper training, cross-community learning and wider communications.