Thursday's report from Ofsted revealing that the pupil premium is not consistently being used effectively is deeply concerning. It is particularly worrying since if targeted correctly, the funding has real potential to help to transform disadvantaged pupils' educational experience.
Education is one of the most important and powerful factors in determining a child's future. A strong learning experience enables young people to grow up with positive, strong aspirations and better prospects for future employment, citizenship and general wellbeing.
Unfortunately all too often our education system lets down the most disadvantaged children. It is a sad fact that bright children from poor families fall behind their better off peers by as early as 22 months - and this gap can continue to grow throughout the course of a child's schooling unless it is addressed.
The Coalition introduced the pupil premium one year ago with the aim of giving head teachers the freedom to address the gulf in attainment between disadvantaged children and their more privileged classmates in the way they judged most effective. The Sutton Trust recently published a very helpful pupil premium 'toolkit' for schools, giving examples of how the money could be used most meaningfully, for example through peer learning and interactive methods to enhance feedback from teachers to students.
So far the government has chosen to incentivize schools to spend the money effectively by offering a ten thousand pound prize for the most innovative uses of the pupil premium. Yetreports have been emerging suggesting that many schools are instead using the funding as a way of plugging holes in their budgets.
It is becoming increasingly clear that to ensure schools truly help boost the social mobility of their pupils, the government needs to consider the stick - Ofsted, in this case - as well as the carrot. Indeed, Barnardo's recent report Mind the Gap, stressed that use of the premium funding must be closely scrutinized as a key part of Ofsted inspections.
We argue that the education regulator must not only monitor how schools are spending their pupil premium, but make effective use of the money a key part of the inspection framework so that it contributes to a school's overall Ofsted grade. No learning provider should receive an 'outstanding' judgement from Ofsted unless it can provide evidence showing it to be 'outstanding' at educating its most disadvantaged pupils.
Whilst it is encouraging that the government is trying to tackle England's uneven educational playing field, it should always be the case that resources are focussed on ensuring the right accountability measures are in place. We must bear in mind that this is not merely a technical debate about correct targeting of funding but about schools making decisions that impact on the life chances of children, both now and in the future.
The government has a moral duty to ensure that support is targeted effectively to pupils from from poorer backgrounds, enabling them stay the course and complete their education or training. In order to live up to its aspirations, the government must now lead schools to guarantee that they are using the pupil premium to improve the educational prospects of their most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.