21 September 2010

Standing in Cimmerian gloom, ēeri kai nephelē kekalummenoi, in the wreckage of cuts and higher VAT disproportionately hurting the poor and vulnerable, which they have made possible by their coalition with the Tories and which they vote for, the Libdems whimper that there is a light. The pupil premium.

This program, not yet in force, will give a yet undecided amount of extra money for every disadvantaged pupil that a school takes on roll. The Libdems believe, fervently believe, desperately believe, that this will transform the education of the poor and bridge the unacceptable gap in achievement beween pupils from poor backgrounds and the rest which Labour failed to close though it too gave more to schools for vulnerable pupils.

It is indeed a flickering candle amid the reactionary dark. But – oh, there are buts.

Which pupils will qualify? How will disadvantage be defined? Eligibility for free school meals or in a family on out-of-work tax credits have been suggested by the government as possible criteria. The criteria matters if we are to include all disadvantaged pupils.

There are other unresolved issues too. How will the premium be spent? How will the government ensure the money is spent so as to help the disadvantaged pupils and not absorbed into the school’s funds generally? Should it be legally ringfenced or should its use be monitored, and if the latter by whom?

The money will be additional to a school’s funds and not taken out of them. Will it be taken from education budgets and if so which education programs will lose out?

But – yes, another but – the amount of the premium is not yet known and this will probably be the most important aspect of the promised program. A recent study by the Institute for fiscal studies (IFS), A disadvantaged pupil premium, indicates that there is a weak link between perpupil spending and attainment and that perhaps eight times more than the £3000 per pupil previously proposed by the Libdems is needed to make a difference. We shall see but I fear the IFS is right.

There is an incoherence in the Tory Libdem policies about education and disadvantage as my past posts have explored and these affect pupils and families in Cornwall. The scrapping of the Building schools for the future program (BSF) was a hasty decision which has disproportionately affected disadvantaged pupils. The abandonment of the extension of free school meals runs counter to their embrace of the premium: the education achievement gap is influenced by home poverty as well as school finance. The decision to reduce the local housing allowance when a worker has been out of work for twelve months on job seekers allowance counters helping disadvantaged pupils too.

There is clear evidence of a social class divide in England schools. For example, Barnardo’s said in its recent report Unlocking the gates: giving disadvantaged children a fairer deal in school admissions that “clusters of privilege” are found around the best state comprehensives with the poorer pupils going to the other schools, a damning judgement on Labour’s school admissions record. I wonder, as apparently the current Libdem conference does, whether the Tory Libdem academies and free schools might turn out to be clusters of privilege too, drawing off funds from other schools. The Tory Libdem government appears to hope that the premium will eat into this divide but I think they are being naive. I think it should be set at an effective level – it won’t be – and much more robust intervention on school admissions is required, including an end to privileging the religion and claimed religion of middle class parents which seems to help social division. More coherence is required in policies to tackle deprivation and disadvantage and educational apartheid but I do not believe the Tory Libdem government has the ideology or stomach for the radical incursions into privilege that are needed. That they are still needed tells us about thirteen years of Labour too.

There is another Libdem candle: raising the tax threshold to £7475 a year and taking the lowest-paid out of tax. I shall snuff that out in a later post.


ēeri kai nefelē kekalummenoi: covered in fog and cloud, Homer Odyssey 11.15. Lines 14-19 of book 11 describe well the position of progressives among the Libdems (I cannot write in Greek letters on the blog)