Pupil premium funding is a ‘blunt instrument’

Children who consistently receive free school meals need more support, study says

A key element of the government’s school-funding system is a “blunt instrument” that fails to recognise the extra needs of the most disadvantaged pupils it was designed to help, according to new research.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, has found that the way pupil-premium funding is allocated does not take into account important distinctions between the poorest children and those who are on the threshold of poverty.

His study reveals that the poorest pupils – who have always received free school meals (FSM) – consistently achieve lower grades at school than pupils who have only intermittently been eligible for FSM. Yet both groups of pupils attract the same amount of pupil-premium funding.

But, Professor Gorard argues, some pupils who are eligible for free school meals will be poorer than others.

“We’re comparing children who are on the threshold – who might drop into eligibility or drop out again, depending on their life circumstances – with those families who are disadvantaged for as long as the child is at school,” he said. “We may be unwittingly unfair to the most disadvantaged.”

The pupil premium was introduced in 2010, offering schools additional funding for every pupil who has been entitled to receive free school meals (FSM) at any point over the last six years. Primary schools receive £1,300 per eligible pupil, and secondary schools £935 per pupil.

After analysing the results of every 15-year-old attending a state school in 2013, Professor Gorard also found a clear correlation between the length of time for which pupils had been eligible for free school meals and their academic results. The longer pupils were eligible for free school meals, the worse their results.

“We’ve got a clear social gradient,” Professor Gorard said. “We could use that to target more directly those pupils who need the pupil premium the most. It’s rather a blunt instrument at the moment.”

A Department for Education spokesman said the pupil premium was “helping the most disadvantaged pupils”.

“To ensure no child who needs it misses out on this vital funding, any child eligible for free school meals over the past six years is entitled to it,” they added.

This is an edited version of an article in the 4 March issue of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. Pick up a copy of this week’s TES magazine from any good newsagent. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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