The budget for schools: towards an attainment premium?

By Ben Durbin

Thursday 20 March 2014

Should a lower attaining pupil intake attract more funding for schools?

For most of the country, the important budget announcements took place yesterday, but for schools the main event came a week earlier with the publication of DfE’s latest school funding proposals.

They have set out plans to top up school funding in certain local authorities currently receiving less than they would under a new ‘minimum funding level’ formula.  (By way of aside, this could be a cunning first step towards introducing a national funding formula without actually introducing a national funding formula).  The formula includes all the usual components, including the now-familiar pupil premium.  But it also proposes something new: an ‘attainment premium’ that provides extra funding for schools with a lower attaining intake.  For primary schools, this is similar in magnitude to the existing pupil premium, whereas for secondary schools it’s nearly twice as large.

I’m not even going to attempt here to get into all of the intricacies of school funding – I explored some of these in an analysis I conducted in 2010 just as the pupil premium was being introduced.  However, I would like to pick up on the notion of an attainment premium.

Policy lever

School funding formulae are more than just a mechanism for ensuring each school has the resources required to deliver a standard education to all pupils.  They also provide a policy lever which can boost resources to schools with particular pupil characteristics, and thereby promote a range of other objectives.

The canonical example of recent times is the pupil premium.  This was introduced by the coalition government in order to provide relatively greater levels of funding for pupils on free school meals (and, in lesser numbers, looked after children and the children of service personnel).  The objective of the policy is to tackle the extraordinary social injustice that sees a child’s life chances determined to a great extent by the social background they’re born into.

I can think of two possible rationales for the new prior attainment allocation, but would be interested to find out more about the discussions that lead to the proposals.  In order to understand the two possibilities I have in mind, first I need to briefly outline the debate surrounding what exactly determines an individual pupil’s attainment.

Nature versus Nurture

There are broadly two possible sources of variation between different pupils’ attainment, and views vary as to the importance of each:

  • Intrinsic factors, or “nature”: broadly a pupil’s underlying ability within the academic domain considered; and
  • Extrinsic factors, or “nurture”: including social background, home life, and quality or – in the case of service children – stability of education received.

Last year a paper was published that investigated the impact across multiple countries of over 120,000 individual’s genes on their years of schooling completed (as a proxy for attainment).  It found that just two per cent of the variation in outcomes could be explained by the genes.  An FAQ on this paper, including some of its limitations, is available here.  In contrast, a twin study undertaken by Kings College London suggested over half of variation in GCSE results in the UK could be explained by genetics, with environmental factors accounting for 36 per cent of variation.

Further discussion can be found in work by Carol Dweck (who argues that treating talent as a fixed trait can be damaging); evidence from international surveys; and in the realm of popular discourse, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and recent discussions on the BBC’s More or Less and by David Epstein speaking at the LSE).

So what’s this got to do with school funding?

Policy rationale

The pupil premium can be seen as a policy that seeks to redress some form of disadvantage relating to a pupil’s environment, i.e the extrinsic factors.    It derives from a worldview that aims for all children to have equal opportunities in life – one I would wholeheartedly support.  Variation in these extrinsic factors is a social justice issue.

Assuming the pupil premium fully levels the social playing field, the key question for the new attainment premium then becomes: to what extent is the remaining variation in prior attainment attributable to other environmental factors (as opposed to a genetic or other intrinsic causes)?

One possible rationale for the funding is to view it as a simple extension of the pupil premium, seeking to further level the playing field in terms of extrinsic factors.  There are a whole range of other factors that could lead to certain pupils facing an ‘opportunity deficit’, resulting in lower prior attainment (indeed, our own research has identified various risk factors associated with disengagement from learning).  These could include home environment, the quality of education received to date, and one-off factors such as having a teacher on long-term sickness.

An attainment premium provides a way to mop-up all of these effects in one go, by linking funding directly to prior attainment, rather than facing the complexity of explicitly identifying, measuring, and assigning suitable levels of funding to each.  Furthermore, for the next couple of years at least, there will also be FSM pupils approaching secondary school who have not benefited from the pupil premium for the entirety of their school careers.

A second possibility is to view an attainment premium as seeking to level the playing field in terms of intrinsic factors.  But to the extent that these factors affect outcomes, greater funding for ‘low ability’ pupils would be to the direct cost of ‘middle and high ability’ pupils.  Given two pupils facing an identical set of life circumstances, the one achieving less well at KS2 would attract more funding than the high performer.  It implies a worldview in which the aim is for all children to reach equal achievements in life regardless of any other considerations, and risks creating a ‘race to the middle’.

Striking a balance

My view is that, in light of the available evidence, further support through funding policy for low attaining pupils is to be welcomed.  However, it would be possible for policy to go too far in this direction, at the cost of giving all our young people the best opportunity to excel.  Further investigation of the contribution different pupil characteristics and backgrounds makes to their attainment would be one way to ensure the right balance is struck.

There are other issues that will also need careful consideration (for example, how will they affect schools’ admissions policies, and how will all-through schools respond whose KS3 funding becomes inversely related to their KS2 results?)  But these are questions for another day.