Will the pupil premium ensure a better education for the children of the poor? Only if the coalition is prepared to fund it properlyby Tim Leunig / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
The single most important factor determining Britain’s long-term growth is the education that the next generation receives. Whether the Bank of England raises interest rates by a smidgen now or next year is all but irrelevant; education policy is economic policy for the long term.
And here is where Britain fails. If your parents are poor, your chances of doing well in school are shockingly low. Around one in five pupils in England are eligible for free school meals—a standard measure of deprivation. But provisional results for 2009 show that 18.5 per cent of pupils in this category did not obtain five or more GCSEs (including English and maths). In a speech to Barnardo’s two years ago, Michael Gove described the educational gulf between children from average and poor backgrounds as “tragic.” It is—both for the children concerned, and for the rest of us. People who do badly at school are less likely to prosper. They generally pay less in tax, and receive more in benefits. And their children do less well at school, so the cycle of intergenerational poverty and economic underperformance continues. That is costly to well-educated, affluent people who make up Prospect’s readership. Even if you care only about yourself, failing children from poor backgrounds is a very bad idea.
The two coalition parties agree about the issue—and on the solution. Both had manifesto commitments for a “pupil premium,” which also appears in the coalition agreement. The idea is that students whose backgrounds predict poor educational outcomes would be given increased funding. The Liberal Democrat manifesto identified £2.5bn of cuts to fund it, and in office—where money is always easier to find than in opposition—it seems clear that they would have funded it much more handsomely. The Conservatives, in contrast, were vague on the costings.
This autumn, in the comprehensive spending review, we will see whether the parties deliver. Fortunately, Michael Gove, the pupil premium’s strongest advocate in the Conservative party, is the secretary of state for education. But over the last two years he has had virtually no support from his own party on this point. His view of Conservative education policy was that “when it comes to helping the poorest we will stop at nothing.” But Chancellor George Osborne has never made this issue a priority.
On the Lib Dem side the policy is most strongly associated with David Laws, who is as…