Holding schools accountable: The challenges of ring-fenced funding

When the pupil premium was first introduced in April 2011, it promised to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils from poorer backgrounds and their peers. With conflicting reports about whether the funding is making a big enough impact, and Ofsted inspections intensifying, what are the biggest challenges school face when it is allocated ring-fenced funding and evidencing what they have achieved?

The pupil premium is additional funding from the government paid directly to schools for pupils aged five to 16 from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, with the purpose of improving their academic performance. For the academic year 2015 to 2016 primary schools are entitled to £1,320 for each pupil premium pupil, while secondary schools receive £935 per pupil. Looked after children, such as those in the care of the English local authority and children who are now in the adoption system or under a special guardianship order, receive an additional £1,900. Schools also receive £300 for any service children in its care.

In 2010 when the funding was first announced, figures from the government showed that only 53% of 7 to 11 year olds known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieved the  expected level in both English and mathematics, compared with 75% for non FSM pupils. Furthermore, only 27% of FSM pupils achieved 5 A* to C GCSEs or equivalent, including English and mathematics, compared with 54% for pupils not eligible. These statistics were a startling wake up call for the education sector, and showed very clearly, how social background was a significant deciding factor in a child’s achievement and future prospects. So, four years on, what has been achieved?

According to a report from the National Audit Office released in June this year, between 2011 and 2014 the gap has narrowed: 4.7 percentage points in primary schools and 1.6 percentage points in secondary schools. But with £2.5bn invested in pupil premium funding in 2014 and 2015 alone, many are critical of the programme, the costs involved and whether it is working towards real change.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, which released the funding for disadvantaged pupils report, acknowledges the progress, but agrees more needs to be  done, “Early signs are that the pupil premium has potential, but it will take time for its full impact to become clear”, she adds, “As it takes the policy forward, the Department [of Education] will need to review whether spending more in this way would allow it to close the attainment gap more quickly.” In fact, the Department of Education does not expect the full impact of funding to be felt until 2018 for primary schools and 2023 for secondary schools – the years, respectively, when eligible pupils will have been funded for their entire education.

While the secondary school gap has decreased by less than 2 percentage points, the gap in primary schools has narrowed much more significantly. It seems the most progress can be made when early intervention is utilised.

Liscard Primary School in Wirral, is reaping the awards of a successful pupil premium programme. This year it won a National Finalist Award at the Pupil Premium Awards. Held in London, the ceremony provides an opportunity to reward and recognise the schools doing the most the raise attainment as well as to showcase examples of the most effective practices which other schools can learn from.

Figures published from the school for the academic year 2013 to 2014 – since 2012 all schools are required to publish online information about how they use pupil premium – show that by the end of Key Stage 2, 100% of pupil premium pupils attained a Reading Level 4 and a Maths Level 4. The school’s end of Year 6 2014 attainment and progress data is above all national averages in all subjects.

With almost a third of its pupils on pupil premium, closing the attainment gap in this way is no easy feat. So, how do they credit this success? They say it is a result of outstanding provision, teaching and learning and the very focused and targeted provision for pupil premium pupils. It very clearly outlines how the funding has been spent and has strong objectives of what they want to achieve.

Interestingly, when noting that pupil premium appears to make the most impact when used in the early stages of education, Liscard Primary focus much of the funding on foundation stages 1 and 2. The school aids disadvantaged pupils early, from arranging a speech therapist to support vulnerable pupils, increasing staffing in lessons to organising Family Works sessions – where parents and children work together to enhance the children’s learning but also to develop the parent’s knowledge of their children’s education.

Schools are given some degree of freedom with what they allocate the pupil premium funding on, and this freedom does bring benefits, as each school will have different objectives and challenges and understand what might be the most effective approaches to help its disadvantaged pupils. As shown with Liscard Primary School, most schools use the funding effectively with great results.

However, with this freedom, does come risk. The National Audit Office’s funding for disadvantaged pupils report found that 77% of schools use some pupil premium for activities that are designed to support all pupils rather than just those who are disadvantaged. Although this can be a cost-effective measure, there is a risk of diluting the funding’s impact for who it is specifically given for.

This, more so than ever, is a real challenge for schools where Pupil Premium is concerned. The accountability of this funding and evidencing how it has been used to close the attainment gap is now firmly on Ofsted’s radar. In 2014, Ofsted confirmed it has downgraded a number of schools because of concerns disadvantaged pupils had been allowed to lag behind.

In Ofsted’s school inspection handbook for 2015, the use of the pupil premium is a set piece of criteria for judging the effectiveness of leadership and management. These key issues include how the school has spent the funding, why it has decided to spend it the way it has and any differences the pupil premium has made to the learning and progress of disadvantaged pupils.

But the lack of targets in place for pupil premium, and the fuzzy terminology of ‘significant impact’ is a cause for concern for many schools;just how does a school show it’s made significant impact? Analysing data and benchmarking pupil premium pupils’ progress and exam results against their peers is one way to effectively show how the funding has successfully made an impact. But in some cases, the funding is used in such a way to aid students which is not directly linked to exam results.

One popular method secondary schools employ with the pupil premium fundingis to host a Summer School for the new intake of Year 7 students. Schools will receive either £250 or £500 for every eligible pupil who confirms they want to attend a one-week or two-week summer school.

So far, more than 165,000 pupil premium pupils have benefited from summer schools to help with the transition from primary to secondary. Nearly all children are apprehensive about transferring to secondary school, but disadvantaged pupils are more likely to report difficulties in finding their way around their new environment, so summer schools are a welcoming introduction to their new journey.

For St Margaret’s Church of England Academy, an all-boys secondary school in Aigburth, its summer school programme has proved an invaluable way to support disadvantaged pupils and ease the transition period. Before the new intake of pupil premium pupils, the school undertakes thorough research so it has the best possible chance of helping pupils with their transition.

Denise Hart, Head of Year 7 explains, “The philosophy that I have about the programme is a simple one; if we can get to know as much as possible about our prospective students then they will have a better transition. Staff will be better informed as to their personalities, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. We have found that the research done in those weeks is invaluable in allowing us to get to know the key issues that some of our prospective students have, this then allows us to get going much more quickly in trying to address them.”

The summer school involves many activities throughout the week, including Literacy and Numeracy work which is used to alert staff to any issues ahead of the new academic year, as well as teamwork and confidence building tasks which this year involved an environmental project about recycling and an enterprise morning in which the boys had to use their skills to ‘Save Liverpool’ from slipping in to the Mersey.

When assessing the success of the summer school, Denise acknowledges the impact is more qualitative than quantitative, but nevertheless, she stresses the skills learnt are all worthwhile. At the end of the week the parents and carers are invited in to have a look at what has been happening” she says, “We have work out on display and give out some small prizes. The parents really appreciate this and the feedback is always great. They are very appreciative of what has happened throughout the week and comment on how in some cases they have seen an instant change in their son in terms of confidence.”

Pupil premium is not the only source of additional funding schools can receive to help deliver improvements in the curriculum. While pupil premium is specifically aimed at disadvantaged pupils, the PE and sports premium is available for all primary schools to help deliver high quality PE and sport opportunities for the whole school.

Again, similar to the pupil premium, since 2013 schools are expected to evidence how the funding has helped improve the quality of PE and sports activities, and Ofsted inspections hold schools accountable. Schools are free to choose the best way of using the money, for example, schools can use the funding to hire specialist PE teachers, hire qualified sports coaches, run sport competitions or increase pupils’ participation in events like the School Games.

The Merseyside Sports Partnership, a non for profit organisation which works throughout Merseyside to increase participation in sport and physical activity, works closely with many schools to support how it delivers PE.

Its director, Jean Stephens, says evidencing how the funding is making a positive impact doesn’t have to be a challenge: “Simple changes to your PE and school sport offer, such as: listening to the needs of pupils and parents and providing a school sport offer based on needs; monitoring the hours spent by each child on PE each week and those that regularly participate in school sport beyond the curriculum can add weight to your Ofsted inspection.”

With Prime Minister David Cameron committing to keep the £150m a year Primary PE and sport premium until 2020, the PE and sports funding appears to be working towards delivering a universal offer of physical education in primary schools.

The benefits of mass participation in school sport has many advantages, not only is it useful for boosting self-esteem, improving children’s concentration and fighting obesity, but research suggests that children that participate in sport regularly are more likely to complete their education and enter higher education. It came as a surprise in 2011 when the £162m of ring-fenced funding which served state school sport was scrapped. Other than the School Games, an initiative born from the Olympics which involves intra-school, regional and national competitions for all ages, the only guaranteed physical activity 11 to 16 year olds receive in school is through PE.

While primary schools are successfully building momentum of lifelong participation in sport up to the age of 11, this momentum is short lived as secondary schools don’t receive any additional funding to promote sports.

However, Calum Donnelly, Strategic Lead for Sport and Physical Activity for Children & Young People at the Merseyside Sports Partnership is optimistic about the sports offering in this region. He says, “Although this change has brought new ways of working, I don’t think across Merseyside we have seen a reduction in quality. Merseyside has an extensive (and hardworking) network of School Games Organisers and School Sport Partnerships who provide outstanding and high quality competitive school sport opportunities for all schools, across all Key Stages.”

While schools face many challenges when allocated specific ring-fenced funding, schools across the country, and indeed from this region highlight just what can be achieved when these budgets are used successfully and appropriately to begin to narrow the attainment gap, and to improve the standard of physical education. While the full impact of pupil premium isn’t to be expected until 2018, Merseyside is working towards narrowing the gap and disrupting the loop of unequal opportunity that hold many disadvantaged children back.

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