Response to Russell Hobby’s post of 8 May 2015

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Thank you for taking the time and trouble to provide a considered response to my posts campaigning against the Fair Education Alliance position on the pupil premium: this one launching the campaign and this demolition of Teach First’s official policy statement of 29 April. New-EYEBALL-for-C4D

By responding in this fashion you set a fine example to the other organisations I am challenging to justify their support for this policy.

As things stand, just one other organisation – the Future Leaders Trust – has bothered to make its views known (and duly distanced itself from this policy).

The remainder are unwilling to break ranks. I am not sure whether to charge them with cowardice or complacency. I hope they will now follow your lead.

You have explained that NAHT has not yet formally adopted your recommendation that it support Teach First’s position, so your post constitutes ‘an interim position in lieu of a vote or resolution’. I have offered to meet you to discuss this, to clarify any outstanding issues and – hopefully – to persuade you to revise that recommendation.

Three factual clarifications to begin with:

  • NAHT is listed as a member of the Fair Education Alliance – whose Report Card 2014 is unclear over whether the proposed pupil premium reallocation applies equally to primary and secondary schools – and a supporter of the Read On. Get On campaign, whose publication specifically urges its application in the primary sector (and implies that it is following the Report Card in this respect).
  • There are no proposals in the Report Card for reform of the schools funding formula, whether to increase the weighting for deprivation or for low prior attainment. Teach First’s policy statement mentions a national funding formula but offers no specific proposals for reforming it. I note that NAHT is itself calling for a fair national funding formula.
  • The implication of Teach First’s policy statement is that disadvantaged learners with low prior attainment would attract a pupil premium rate double that available to all other disadvantaged learners, middle as well as high attainers. There is no proposal to change the FSM-driven definition of disadvantage that currently underpins the pupil premium and no definition of what constitutes low prior attainment. I note that you recently floated the idea of replacing ‘ever-6 FSM’ eligibility for pupil premium with ‘a measure of the prior attainment of pupils’.

These are my responses to the substantive points of your argument:

  • It is true that other eligible disadvantaged learners would continue to attract pupil premium funding – at half the rate available for eligible disadvantaged low attainers. This implies that their needs are deemed much less significant, and/or that those needs are significantly easier and cheaper to address. The Report Card makes clear that ‘the change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils’ (p27). All schools would be expected to prioritise ‘catch up’ for disadvantaged low attainers over all other provision for disadvantaged learners. As ASCL has pointed out, this cuts directly across heads’ and governors’ autonomy in deciding how best to allocate pupil premium funding. Hence, in this context, NAHT is arguing for such autonomy to be curtailed. I trust you will concede this?
  • There are presently differential rates of pupil premium for primary and secondary learners. The differential in favour of primary schools was justified by the previous Government, not on equity grounds, but as helping schools to meet higher expectations of ‘secondary readiness’ associated with the new assessment and accountability regime. But the new regime also shifts schools away from a binary approach to a model in which improvements at any point along the scale of prior attainment are equally valued. Double weighting of pupil premium for low attainers points in precisely the opposite direction.
  • You posit an alternative position on equity that:

‘consists in ensuring first that all students achieve a certain level of competence and that therefore more should be invested in those furthest from that threshold… One rationale for this position would be that once individuals have passed a certain threshold they have a capacity for self-improvement whereby they can extend their own education and create opportunities. Below this threshold, such self-determination is significantly harder. Thus, if you had to choose only one option it could be more socially valuable to lift a student to this threshold than to continue to stretch a student already beyond the threshold.’

You explain this as a trade-off imposed as a consequence of scarce resources. Such a position may be ideologically driven, irrational and evidence-free, or supported by an evidence base. The former is not susceptible to counter-argument. The latter can be challenged through an alternative evidence base setting out the equivalent social and economic value of closing excellence gaps. I have presented that evidence base at length and will not revisit it here. But, in determining its final position I trust that NAHT will give full and careful consideration to both sets of evidence, rather than relying exclusively on material that supports your argument. I would welcome your assurances on this point.

  • My broader evidence-driven judgement is that, allowing for scarce resources, the most effective education systems (and the best schools) typically strive to keep excellence and equity in equilibrium. If one is allowed to predominate, the overall quality of education suffers. If a school (or a headteachers’ association or any other organisation targeted by this campaign) holds a particular view on this issue, in which equity is permitted to trump excellence, it seems reasonable to expect it to state explicitly the consequences of that decision – and to hold itself accountable to its stakeholders for those. In the case of a school I would expect this to be made explicit in the vision/mission statements intended for parents and staff alike – and in the documentation supplied to Ofsted prior to inspection. Otherwise there is every risk of hypocrisy. In short, a headteacher who takes this position cannot with integrity run a school that pretends the opposite. If it adopts this policy, I look forward to NAHT advising its members accordingly.
  • You suggest that the distinction between pupil premium and school funding formula is a second order issue. I do not agree. If there is a case for higher weighting for low prior attainment – to reflect the additional costs associated with tackling it – that should be reflected in the core budget through the funding formula, alongside the weightings for pupil deprivation and high needs, typically but not exclusively associated with SEN. The formula should properly recognise the overlap between these factors. I would welcome NAHT’s considered analysis of the totality of funding available to support (disadvantaged) low attainers through all funding streams, since treating pupil premium in isolation is misleading and inappropriate.
  • Pupil premium is different because it is supposed to benefit directly the learners who attract it. Indeed, the latest edition of the Governors’ handbook goes as far as to state that:

‘The pupil premium is a separate funding stream to be used solely for the educational benefit of children eligible and registered for free school meals at any time during the last six years, or those who have been in continuous public care for six months’ (page 109)

While this does not amount to a personal budget, the direct link between the funding and eligible learners means that the reallocation proposed will almost certainly have a direct impact on support for those whose entitlement is reduced, especially if backed up as proposed by accountability pressures. This overrides any consideration of individual needs and circumstances and applies regardless of the total pupil premium funding received by a school. I invite NAHT to consider carefully whether this is in the best interests of the schools its members lead.

  • You accept I have a point about ‘the level of detail in the calculations’. There is no detail whatsoever. This means that the organisations, including NAHT, who support Teach First’s position have effectively signed a ‘blank cheque’. I would hazard a guess that the full consequences of the redistribution, including the risks, have not been thought through. They certainly haven’t been presented. That is not what one would expect of a leading educational organisation, especially one that receives a substantial proportion of its funding from the taxpayer. I recommend that, before taking its decision, NAHT obtains and publishes detailed draft proposals and a full risk analysis.
  • You also acknowledge the potentially negative impact on impact Goal 5. This is especially true of the part relating to progression to selective universities. It suggests that neither Teach First nor the Alliance have properly considered the interaction between their different goals. To suggest, as the Teach First policy statement does, that the appropriate interventions necessary to support Goal 5 are straightforward and inexpensive betrays a certain naivety but also an ignorance of the National strategy for access and student success. I urge that NAHT considers carefully how it will support Goal 5 and whether there is not a risk – even a likelihood – that the proposed reductions in pupil premium would undermine that support.

As you know, both ASCL and the NGA now oppose Teach First’s position, as does John Dunford, the pupil premium champion. The Conservative Manifesto pledges that it will ‘continue to provide the pupil premium, protected at current rates’. NAHT should reassess its own position in the light of this information.

Ofsted has announced that it will ensure inspections continue to focus sharply on the progress of able disadvantaged students, given its finding that only one-third of non-selective secondary schools are using pupil premium effectively to support them.

I have seen no evidence to suggest that primary schools are any more effective in this respect. Regardless of the arguments above, NAHT should obtain this evidence and reflect carefully upon its implications. 

In conclusion, I once more urge NAHT to withdraw its support for Teach First’s policy, as advanced by the FEA and Read On. Get On.

I also invite you to consider what more NAHT itself could do to ensure that its members are providing the best possible education for their most able learners, especially those eligible for the pupil premium.

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GP

May 2015