Guest post: Unintended consequences and why I think weighting pupil premium to low attainers could be a mistake

We recently covered a report suggesting that ministers are considering a plan to give extra Pupil Premium cash to disadvantaged children who start school with low levels of attainment, paid for by cutting the Pupil Premium funding for higher-attaining pupils. Here Marc Rowland – author of ‘A Practical Guide to the Pupil Premium’ – explains why he would not support such a move.

‘The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason’
Charles Darwin

Marc Rowland

Marc Rowland

Recent media reports covered renewed calls for the Pupil Premium to be heavily weighted towards low attaining pupils. I think this would be a mistake.

Improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils is a complex issue. Whilst the current mechanism for getting additional funding to support this aim is rather blunt, it also has some significant strengths:

  • It is transparent
  • Easily understood
  • Accountability is clear
  • The funding follows the individual, rather than a community.

These strengths are, of course, also weaknesses. The fact that funding follows individuals means that in a minority of schools, leadership of Pupil Premium has been more about accounting than learning, and encourages the idea that a £1300 grant is going to ‘fix’ entrenched poverty.

The greatest strength of the current model is that schools have the autonomy to decide how to spend the funding. Ofsted, the DfE, parents should be focussed on outcomes

By restricting the funding to lower attaining pupils, a number of unintended consequences are caused:

  • The idea that disadvantage and low attainment are synonymous is entrenched
  • It restricts how schools use the money
  • It discourages long term thinking, crucial to building strong, resilient and adaptable learners. You don’t achieve and sustain this with one to one catch up tuition prior to end of key stage tests for low attaining pupils. This approach kicks the can down the road.

The cold wind of poverty can quickly blow away prior gains. Many disadvantaged pupils remain vulnerable, particularly during primary – secondary transition, even when they have attained well by the end of KS2. These young people need advocates, they need support.

Then there is the ‘quiet middle’, those children whose progress may not yet have made alarm bells ring prior to year 7 does not represent an overcoming of educational disadvantage. Great schools enable the voices of these learners to be heard. And later in life, who is giving time to the student who is capable of gaining a good university place, but just needs that bit of extra support? Grades count for little if a student doesn’t feel like they belong, if their cultural capital is limited, if their peer group and work experiences are limited. But all these things are a cost to schools.

At a system level, reducing the Pupil Premium for higher achieving pupils is a disincentive for admission into high achieving secondary schools in relatively affluent communities. As grammar schools return to the news, they will have even less incentive to admit more disadvantaged pupils if the Pupil Premium does not fully follow those that are attaining well.

As a collective group, disadvantaged young people face multiple challenges to success in society. One of the ways to overcome these challenges is to attain well. But that is not enough on its own. Tackling educational disadvantage is more than achieving grade C in English and Maths. Weighting Pupil Premium to low attainment, on the surface, feels instinctively right. Particularly in an era where funding is like butter spread too thinly over toast. But this would be a Jekyll and Hyde policy. Respectable on the surface, but underneath, the consequences are potentially gruesome. I’d argue we can’t afford to take away the support too soon.

Marc is Deputy Director of the National Education Trust and author of ‘A Practical Guide to the Pupil Premium’ (John Catt).      


Also by Marc Rowland: Guest Post: Successful Schools and the Pupil Premium – Key Lessons and 21 Top Tips for Raising Outcomes


Is Marc right to suggest this proposal, while well intended, could result in unintended and undesirable consequences? 

Please give us your take on this in the comments or via Twitter…


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  1. Yorkshire_Steve

    MaryMyatt natedtrust_marc on one hand DfE are moving away from C/D is all that matters (P8 replacing 5A*-C inc EM) but removing PP …..

  2. Yorkshire_Steve

    MaryMyatt natedtrust_marc from able disadvantaged kids is saying PP is about getting kids to min standard of competence not excellence

  3. nastyoldmrpike

    Yorkshire_Steve MaryMyatt natedtrust_marc agree with this, if anything high achieving pp kids require the cash more as we need…

  4. MadeUpTeacher1

    MaryMyatt natedtrust_marc I agree however given accountability, schools will look to close the gap as efficiently as possible. 1/2

  5. MadeUpTeacher1

    MaryMyatt natedtrust_marc ..and it’s a shame that given that gap, more is not done post 18. This is when choice for disadvantaged 2/2

  6. birch_david

    natedtrust_marc SchoolsImprove ..and right on the money it is too, Marc. Really well argued: PP has to be about opportunity and aspiration

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