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Levelling Up Commission Panel – SEND and Pupil Premium

levelling up

The Levelling Up Commission recently held three back-to-back online panel sessions focused on educational inequalities. The sessions were all hosted by Paula Sheriff, the former Shadow Minister for Social Care and Mental Health and Women and Equalities.

The first of the three sessions was based on SEND and Pupil Premium. Joining Paula on this panel were Jo Hutchinson – the Director of SEND and additional needs at the Education Policy Institute, and Nick Watkiss, a senior education consultant, whose recent experience includes academy CEO, Executive Principal and Ofsted inspector. 

Both panellists provided expert insight into SEND and Pupil Premium within education, offering suggestions for how provision could be improved across the sector for disadvantaged pupils.

The SEND funding system

Jo Hutchinson was the first panellist to speak and she spoke passionately about why the current SEND funding system does not work. Referencing historical data and analytics, Hutchinson said:

“Attainment gaps for children with SEND were closing until 2015, however, from 2015-2019 we started to see improvement levels slow down. Since COVID, trends have now reversed and the gaps have actually started to widen.

“One of the biggest issues around SEND is the funding system. It starts with the Treasury and Department for Education who set a the funding pot before they dish it out to Local Authorities.

“The problem is that the formula for who gets what money is based on historic spending – how much each area used to spend on special needs before funding was centrally allocated. Quite a lot has changed since then so that causes problems.”

SEND issues

Once local authorities get this funding, it is then split up between special schools, alternative provisions and top-up funding for children with Education, Care and Health Plans (ECHPs) in mainstream schools. Jo believes that this structure has plenty of complications and issues. She said:

“I have undertaken research into how children are identified with SEND and the question of who gets an ECHP largely depends on which school the child attends. The issue here is that schools differ in their ability to meet their duty to provide £6000 worth of funding for SEND needs so plenty of children are missed.

“Another issue is that the ‘geography of need” has shifted. There are areas that have higher needs now than they did previously but that isn’t taken into account.

“Additionally, we have a system that expects a certain portion of needs to disappear at age 11 which I think is magical thinking. We do see large numbers of children who were recognised as SEND in primary school no longer getting support in secondary school.”

Pupil Premium – Is it working?

Pupil premium was introduced in 2011 by the government which looks to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in state-funded schools. The way Pupil Premium works is that each school in the country will receive a certain amount of funding depending on how many pupils in that school “qualify” for it.

Explaining the context around Pupil Premium, Nick Watkiss said:

“The gap between disadvantaged and affluent students is widening since the pandemic which is evidence that use of the Pupil Premium is more critical than ever. 

The criteria for awarding Pupil Premium funding is mainly based on children in schools who are eligible for free school meals now or at any point over the past 6 years. 

“Once funding is received, schools decide how best to use this money to benefit disadvantaged students. It is worth noting that these aren’t personal grants for individual students, they are aggregated grants provided to each school to use how they judge it would best benefit disadvantaged children across the board. At times, depending on how this funding is used, it can be used to benefit other students as well.”

The government publishes that there are four lines of accountability to ensure the fund has maximum impact on disadvantaged students.

1) Schools must publish a written plan each year.

2) Ofsted will periodically review the impact of Pupil Premium at each school.

3) Performance tables state the difference between the outcomes of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students along with other measures such as attendance.

4) Governors are expected to challenge school leaders to ensure the use of the funding is positive.

The three focus areas of Pupil Premium

In order to ensure best practice when using the pupil premium fund, the government has pointed to the Education Endowment Foundation’s research as a reference point and recommended that schools focus on these three areas:

  1. High-quality teaching.
  2. Targeted academic support outside the classroom.
  3. Wider strategies.

For Watkiss, the first two should be a given at every school, which meant that he focussed his presentation ‘implementing wider strategies’. He said:

“This is the most under-utilised use of the pupil premium, in my experience on the front line. The Education Endowment Foundation says that strategies which address non-academic challenges can have a great deal of success. In my experience, it is the schools which nail this third aspect in detail that get the best impact from the fund.

“The best examples I’ve seen include a school that ensured every child who didn’t have a laptop received a quality piece of kit – not just a budget, sub-standard laptop that could break down easily. Another effective example was a school that provided 5g routers to children who didn’t have internet access in a bid to bridge the digital divide.  Watkiss concluded by stating “I would urge the commission to consider how they challenge and support Pupil Premium by scrutinising this third area. The beauty of schools is that there is always at least one adult who knows exactly what would make a difference for every single child. Using this intelligence and freeing up Pupil Premium for these purposes could change lives.”

Questions and answers

The panel ended with a couple of questions from members of the commission. One question that was put to both panellists related to the difference in how Pupil Premium is used based on how many children qualify for it in any given school.

Hutchinson said: “A budget based on three children means you are forced to employ individual strategies, whereas if half your cohort is eligible then you can start doing things like hiring specialist staff to work on vital interventions across the board. There are a different array of options depending on the proportion for sure.”

Echoing these thoughts, Watkiss said: “I’ve seen the use of pupil premium be effective and ineffective in both settings. In large schools, you can create a culture for everyone but in smaller schools, it’s perhaps easier to identify individual targeted support.”

Summary

  • The SEND funding system is not working effectively, according to Jo Hutchinson, Director of SEND and additional needs at the Education Policy Institute.
  • The “geography of need” has shifted, with some areas having higher needs than they did previously, but this is not taken into account in the funding formula.
  • Pupil Premium is not doing what it should be, according to Nick Watkiss, an education consultant and former head teacher. The gap between disadvantaged and affluent students is getting bigger since the pandemic.
  • The three focus areas for Pupil Premium are high-quality teaching, targeted academic support outside the classroom, and wider strategies, but the latter is the most under-utilised and has the most potential for impact.

Final thought

Overall, the first panel session of the Levelling Up Commission highlighted the need for a more effective and comprehensive approach to addressing educational inequalities in the UK.

The panellists emphasized the importance of addressing non-academic challenges and ensuring that funding is used effectively to support disadvantaged students.

They also stressed the need for more accountability in the use of Pupil Premium funding and a more holistic approach to addressing educational inequalities.

Watch the full video here:

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