The pupil premium is simply unfair

19th March, 2012 3:29 pm

According to Michael Gove, the pupil premium “goes to every child eligible for free school meals and is allocated precisely according to need”. He is correct on the first point, but very much wrong on the second. If the premium is allocated precisely according to need, it is surprising that the area getting the largest increase in their allocation this year is Rutland (8% of children living in poverty), while the smallest increase goes to the Wirral (26% of children in poverty). There is a clear relationship, which you can see here – the poorer the area, the smaller the increase in the pupil premium.

A policy that aims to get more money into schools with the poorest pupils is doing the exact opposite. On average, an English education authority, with 22% of children living in poverty, will receive a 79% increase in their main pupil premium allocation this year. This sounds good. However, delving into the details suggests something quite strange. The ten areas with the largest pupil premium increases are mostly southern and comfortable areas with child poverty rates well below the national average. The ten areas with the smallest increases (ignoring the Isles of Scilly) are all urban areas in London or the north, with child poverty rates well above the national average.

The government’s flagship education policy is rolled out at every available opportunity by the Lib Dems as evidence of why it is important to have them in the coalition. Yet the way it works in practice is very obviously unfair. Of the 68 areas getting a below-average increase, 46 have above-average levels of child poverty. Of the 82 areas getting an above-average increase, 55 have below-average levels of child poverty. Poorer, metropolitan, areas are getting less than richer, generally southern, areas – how can that be fair? How can a policy which aims to benefit the poorest be growing at a faster rate for the rich than for the poor?

The problem lies in the way the premium is calculated. This year, it has been increased to a flat £600 per eligible pupil, with no adjustment made for poor pupils living in relatively expensive areas (such as London). Eligible pupils are those who have been entitled to free school meals at any time in the last six years. Like much of the government’s rhetoric, this sounds superficially fair, but the reality is much more complicated and much less fair.

Using free school meals as the only indicator of poverty benefits relatively well-off areas in the south with stable pockets of poor people – exactly the areas that will see the biggest increases in their pupil premium this year. It militates against London, the north and metropolitan areas. A policy which aims to discriminate positively in fact has the opposite effect.

The Lib Dems have made much of their “fairness premium”, but a look at their Ministers’ own constituencies reveals the fairness problem. Sarah Teather, the Schools Minister, sees her schools in Brent receiving an increase 13% less than the average, while 10% more children in Brent live in poverty than the English average. It is the same pattern – the poorest areas receive the smallest increases.

This policy needs a serious re-think. It is totally unacceptable for Ministers to pose as the guardians of fairness and equity while their flagship policy shovels more money to richer areas than to poorer ones. It shows how out of touch Ministers are when their own constituencies are victims of their policies, yet they fail to realise it. Nobody can argue with the idea of a pupil premium that targets funding at the poorest, allowing young people to catch up with their more fortunate peers. However, this policy has the opposite effect.

When I asked the Education Secretary why richer areas were getting more pupil premium money than poorer areas, he denied that this happened. He needs to understand his policy, and then he needs to change it.

David Lammy is MP for Tottenham

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