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Pupil premium – Using the National Tutoring Programme to close attainment gaps

Now more than ever, the government can’t afford to squander funds by allowing pupil premium to remain unaccountable...

  • Pupil premium – Using the National Tutoring Programme to close attainment gaps

Even at the best of times, teachers have to make the most of a limited budget, but with extra expenditures to protect students and staff from the coronavirus, some schools are struggling to make ends meet.

By refocusing the programmes that these funds are supposed to go toward, the government can ensure that every child receives the best possible education.

The pupil premium was established in 2011 as a way for schools to close the attainment gap among students eligible for free school meals. The programme provided support in maths and English up to GCSE level, and the success of the first several years of investment was cause for significant optimism.

However, by 2019 the Education Select Committee noted that the funds earmarked for targeted tutoring were instead being used to “plug holes in schools’ budgets”, due to a lack of accountability for how they were spent.

Instead of catching up with their peers, DfE statistics show that the same pupils eligible for the premium were receiving fixed-term exclusions at a higher rate than before. 

Unfortunately, the programme’s precarious state is corroborated by the Education Policy Institute’s 2019 study of the 2017-18 academic year, which found that while primary schools have continued to close the attainment gap, it has actually widened in secondary schools.

The Sutton Trust’s annual poll of teachers offers yet more evidence, finding that just 55% believed that their school was using the pupil premium effectively. Since then, the number of schools focusing their pupil premium appropriately has improved somewhat, but there is still room for improvement.

To understand where pupil premium went amiss, we must look to a parallel programme which has had greater success. Pupil premium plus is a similar fund which provides financial support for looked-after children and has managed to maintain its per-pupil attainment focus due to close government oversight.

Unlike the standard pupil premium, attainment is quantitatively assessed, and data is collected on metrics such as reading age, fluency and comprehension. Greater accountability for student attainment has resulted in a more successful, precise programme and – most importantly – better outcomes for children.

Another facet of the pupil premium plus that we must acknowledge is its focus on one-to-one tuition. I acknowledge that, as the founder of a tutoring company, I have a vested interest in this, but I’m confident that whatever qualified party delivers the tuition, it’s a resource without parallel when it comes to closing attainment gaps.

A 2018 study by the Education Endowment Foundation demonstrated that low-cost tutoring can improve struggling maths students’ results by three months. 

Last year my company delivered more than 29,000 hours of online tuition to looked-after children. Every student who has received tuition has made progress, and some demonstrated incredible rates of improvement – as much as a month’s progress per lesson.

Beside the numerical gains, direct tutoring also increases a child’s confidence, improves their communication skills and gives them the tools they need to overcome academic challenges.

Pupil premium plus offers examples of both the benefits of one-to-one interventions and the importance of meaningful, quantitative oversight. The programme’s focus on fundamentals, namely literacy and numeracy, also helps it to remain focused and effective.

The EEF chief executive, Sir Kevan Collins, emphasised in the foundation’s report on the pupil premium that educational attainment is the single best predictor of lifelong success.

At a time when pupils face the additional challenges of learning at a distance, the government can’t afford to squander funds by allowing the pupil premium programme to remain so lacklustre.

While schools remain relatively free to allocate the pupil premium as they see fit, the government has recently introduced one high-value way to spend it. The National Tutoring Programme currently provides 75% subsidies on tutoring for disadvantaged pupils, with more than 30 certified providers on board.

Given the significant discount, I’m hopeful that we’ll see a greater number of schools using the services of qualified tutors to close attainment gaps. Greater oversight of the pupil premium remains a pressing concern, but I welcome any effort to provide disadvantaged students with the support they deserve.


Simon Barnes is a former teacher and founder of teacher-run tuition company TLC LIVE. Follow TLC LIVE on Twitter at @tlc_livetutors.

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