Skip to main content

Committee calls for urgent changes to support disadvantaged pupils

9 October 2015

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) publishes report on funding for disadvantaged pupils, its third report of  2015-16.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of PAC, today called for a step change in supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who risk losing out if the early success of the Pupil Premium is not spread more widely.

She said:

"We all know how important it is to give children the best possible start in life, and the vital role their education plays in this. There is a clear link between poor academic performance and lower wages or unemployment in later years. A cornerstone of education policy should be to provide effective tools to close the ‘attainment gap' that sees poverty pass down through generations.

The Pupil Premium was launched with the aim of improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. While the Department for Education has demonstrated the potential of this investment, more must be done if that potential is to be fully realised. Figures show there has been some narrowing of the attainment gap but results have been uneven. More joined-up thinking is required. It is clearly in children's best interests that weaker schools learn from successes elsewhere and new measures are needed to ensure this happens.

Urgent steps must be taken to establish benchmarks for effectiveness and ensure best practice – where evidence shows Pupil Premium spending and implementation is working – is followed across the sector. There needs to be a better understanding of why disadvantaged pupils from different backgrounds can perform so differently; similarly, the Department should clarify the options open to schools where parental disengagement is seen as an obstacle to improvement.

The Committee is very concerned the roll-out of Universal Credit will make it harder to identify children eligible to benefit from the Pupil Premium – and indeed, the Department admits it still has no plan in place to address this. We are therefore asking for an update on its progress within six months.

We also want to see a clear timetable for the Department to review the schools' funding formula which, at present, sees some schools receive about £3,000 a year more than others per disadvantaged pupil.

Without progress on these points, the Public Accounts Committee does not believe disadvantaged pupils across the country can receive full value from Pupil Premium investment. That could mean many children it is designed to help will miss out on potentially life-changing benefits at a crucial stage in their development." 

Poor academic performance affecting later life

Around 2 million (29%) of the 7 million children aged between 4 and 16 in publicly-funded schools in England come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such pupils tend to perform poorly in public examinations relative to other pupils. As poor academic performance is associated with lower wages and higher unemployment in adulthood, this "attainment gap" for disadvantaged pupils is a key way in which poverty is transmitted from one generation to the next.

The Pupil Premium

In 2011, the Department for Education (the Department) announced new funding for schools, the Pupil Premium, which specifically aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. Between 2011-12 and the end of 2014-15, the Department had distributed some £6.0 billion of Pupil Premium funding to schools.

Since the introduction of the Pupil Premium, the attainment gap has closed overall by 4.7 percentage points in primary schools and by 1.6 percentage points in secondary schools. Besides Pupil Premium funding, the Department requires local authorities to use deprivation as a factor when allocating core funding to schools.

Since the introduction of the Pupil Premium in 2011, there is some evidence that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has started to narrow. Head teachers have increased their focus on tackling this obdurate issue and there are many examples of schools using the Pupil Premium on interventions that work. The work of the Education Endowment Foundation has also been important in developing the evidence base for what works best, and so helping schools to choose the best interventions for their own circumstances.

More consistency needed

However, the Department for Education needs to be better at supporting schools to share and use best practice more consistently so that more schools use the Pupil Premium effectively. In addition, there remain inequalities in the core funding received by schools with very similar levels of disadvantage.

As the impact of the Pupil Premium will take a long time to be fully realised, the Department needs to do more to demonstrate its emerging benefits in the meantime. We also urge the Department to carry out an early review of the effectiveness of the Early Years Pupil Premium.

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

  1. The Department has demonstrated the potential of the Pupil Premium, but it has not yet set out how it will judge success. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed since 2011 at both primary and secondary school level, but the gap remains large and progress has been uneven across the country.
    Recommendation: In line with its original objective to obtain significant impact in primary schools by 2015 and in secondary schools by 2020, the Department should urgently define what "significant" means, setting out its timetable for action as soon as possible. It should also set out how it will track and report on the post-school destinations of pupils.
  2. While the evidence base for what works is growing, the Department does not do enough to make sure this good practice is adopted in weaker schools.
    Recommendation: As the evidence base grows, the Department should develop the necessary mechanisms to make sure schools use effective interventions with disadvantaged pupils. In addition, the Department should make Pupil Premium Reviews mandatory for those schools identified as using the Pupil Premium ineffectively. The Department should ensure that schools share best practice on how to use the pupil premium effectively. It should consider how best to encourage weaker schools to participate and set out its action plan and timetable to achieve this.
  3. The Department and the Education Endowment Foundation do not understand enough about the reasons why disadvantaged pupils from some backgrounds do markedly better at school than others. Pupils from some geographical areas seem to face more challenges than others. For example, some deprived rural and coastal areas have entrenched social problems that appear to impact adversely on schools' ability to help disadvantaged pupils to progress quickly. In contrast, pupils from some cultural backgrounds tend to attain well, most strikingly Chinese pupils, whose attainment is very high irrespective of their level of disadvantage.
    Recommendation: The Education Endowment Foundation should carry out and then disseminate research into the reasons why disadvantaged pupils from certain communities do better at school than others.
  4. Parental engagement is important if a child is to do well at school but some schools are struggling to challenge disengaged parents effectively. Almost all school leaders identify parental engagement as a barrier to closing the attainment gap but many schools do not use the Pupil Premium to address this concern. This is partly due to a debate within the schools sector about whether support for pupils should extend beyond the school gates.
    Recommendation: The Department should clarify the circumstances in which it expects schools to challenge parental disengagement and, in collaboration with the Education Endowment Foundation, should improve guidance about what schools should do. It should also set out what work could be done to join up other public and third sector groups to ensure that parental support, or lack of it, is addressed across the board.
  5. The Department has not yet resolved the potentially destabilising impact that Universal Credit may have on its ability to identify disadvantaged pupils. Universal Credit, which will see five benefits combined into one, means the end of the current basis for determining free school meals and therefore Pupil Premium eligibility. The Department does not yet know how it will identify disadvantaged pupils following Universal Credit's introduction, and there is relatively little time to find an answer.
    Recommendation: The Department should write to the Committee, within 6 months, to update us on its plans to mitigate the risk that Universal Credit will make it harder to identify all genuinely disadvantaged pupils. In addition, the Department should ensure local authorities encourage all eligible parents to register for free school meals. The Department should also be clear about how it intends to incentivise local authorities to do this well.
  6. It will be important to monitor the impact of spending on the recently introduced Early Years Pupil Premium. Some children from disadvantaged backgrounds are starting school under-prepared and developing more slowly than their peers. Evidence shows that there may be more that can be done to tackle the impact of deprivation on a child's progress in the years before starting school.
    Recommendation: The Department should review the level and effectiveness of the Early Years Pupil Premium after its first year of operation.
  7. There continues to be wide variation in the funding given to schools, even those dealing with similar levels of disadvantage. Pupil Premium is funded on a rational per capita basis but the Department does not have a similarly rational basis for setting overall funding for disadvantaged pupils. This leads to unexplained variations in school funding, with some schools receiving around £3,000 a year more than others for each disadvantaged pupil. The £390 million given to 69 local authority areas with the lowest levels of school funding is a step in the right direction but there is much more to do.
    Recommendation: The Department should set out a clear timetable for completing its review of the schools funding formula and should make sure this review leads to a more structured and evidence-based approach to setting overall funding for schools with similar levels of disadvantage.

Further information 

Image: iStockphoto