The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Simon Barnes Headshot

Closing the Gap

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Designed to give the UK's most disadvantaged children an academic boost, the pupil premium is a £1.25bn allowance to be spent on disadvantaged students: those eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and children of members of the armed services. It is an excellent initiative that has the potential to genuinely improve the academic attainment of tens of thousands of children.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, recently announced the findings of a report which showed that not all schools have been spending the allowance directly on the pupils it's intended for. Citing low expectations, lack of tracked progress and poor management from teachers of mixed-ability classrooms as major barriers to bridging the gap in education outcomes between privileged and poorer pupils, he insisted that schools be held accountable for this 'large chunk' of public money and justify their expenditure with results.

However, as a former teacher, I know how difficult it is to dedicate more attention to one student than another, and in order to raise attainment in less privileged pupils this is precisely what the money needs to be used for. Some head teachers responded to Wilshaw's criticism by claiming that it is impossible to separate disadvantaged pupils from the rest in a classroom situation. In my view, a provision of £600 per child, when multiplied across the full population of FSM students within a school, is enough to put towards programmes and initiatives that give these children the extra attention they need in regular intervals throughout the academic year- but some schools need guidance to use this money correctly.

There are plenty of schools achieving results. Confidence building workshops, one-to-one attention, online tuition, and homework help sessions that give each child a boost in academic attainment are in place in schools across the country. Unsurprisingly, the Ofsted survey found that schools in poorer areas with a high percentage of FSM pupils are leading the way when it comes to spending the money, which tops out at over £522,000 at one school in East London. Consistent and regular input throughout the year, rather than short-term bursts of attention, is what we've found delivers the best results. This success is down to experience and an understanding of how to manage mixed ability classrooms along with an understanding of what is proven to positively affect academic achievement.

One of the best elements of the pupil premium is the wide scope for creativity that the government has allowed school boards and head teachers. There are no restrictions on how this money is currently spent so long as it gets results, which means schools are free to find innovative ways of boosting their pupils' academic achievement. Education technology is widely available at low cost, and there are a number of solutions that get results that can be proven by data showing a student's progress over time. Some schools have used the pupil premium to fund one-to-one online tuition with qualified UK-based teachers - they have subsequently been able to show just how the money's been spent and the direct effect it's had.

Devoting greater time and effort to improving confidence and raising the attainment of disadvantaged children is essential during their formative years if they are to progress at the same rate as their more privileged peers. Schools have a responsibility to make the most of initiatives such as the pupil premium and should invest the money in proven solutions. Schools that aren't making the cut need to follow the lead of schools using it successfully and take the necessary steps to ensure that the allowance is directly applied to those students for whom the money is intended.