1. Mr Leeson said that the Pupil Premium had been introduced by the Coalition government in 2011 and subsequently extended to include children eligible for free school meals, children whose parents serve in the armed forces and looked after children. Its purpose was to close the attainment gap between these groups and their peers. The funding for the Pupil Premium in Kent was more than £55 million and while there had been welcome improvement in attainment in 2017 for pupils on free school meals more needed to be done to close the achievement gap for these less advantaged learners.
2. The English education system as a whole was poor at ensuring disadvantaged pupils did well at school; the impact of poverty on educational outcomes was greater than it was in comparator countries. In England social mobility was limited and it was difficult to escape the “poverty trap”. There had been some limited gains nationally as a result of the Pupil Premium. In addition it had also focussed attention on attainment and the attainment gap between vulnerable learners and others. Mr Leeson said David Laws, Executive Chairman, Education Policy Institute and former Minister of Schools had addressed the recent EduKent Conference. Mr Laws had said that the government needed to apply hard evidence when making decisions about the future of education in the UK and that the Education Policy Institute was developing a clear and detailed vision of how a world-class educational environment should function to deliver the best possible outcomes for young people of all backgrounds.
3. Mr Leeson said the gap in attainment between pupils in receipt of free school meals in Kent was 23.7 months behind compared with 19 months nationally. He said the achievement gap was narrowing but it was still disappointing.
4. Mr Leeson said the schools in Kent used the Pupil Premium funding in a variety of ways. All schools were required to publish a strategy on their website setting out how the funds had been used and assess its impact over time. The practice among schools varied considerably, with many schools publishing very good strategies on their websites. The local authority supported schools to develop strategies, including regular conferences for schools, connecting schools with the best practices with other schools, producing toolkits for schools and ensuring that closing the attainment gap was a strong focus for school improvement advisers.
5. An analysis of results showed, however, that whilst attainment improved overall year on year, gaps in attainment for pupils supported by the Pupil Premium, Children in Care (CiC), and for pupils with Special Educational Needs remained wider than the national gaps.
6. There had been encouraging progress but more needed to be done to narrow the achievement gaps for vulnerable learners, particularly those supported by the Pupil Premium.
7. National data also showed that schools with high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals tended to do better at reducing the attainment gap than schools with fewer pupils eligible for free school meals, suggesting that a focus on such pupils and targeted intervention made a real difference. The Education Endowment Foundation had carried out considerable research to identify the interventions with the greatest impact.
8. Issues relating to the educational attainment of children eligible for free school meals often manifested themselves in the Early Years’ stage and included mental health, delay in the development of language, communication and social skills. Parenting in the early years had an impact. Investment in nursery and early years was critical and made a big difference, however, total investment nationally was insufficient. That said, in 2017 a gap of 10% in Early Years between the attainment of the poorest children and all children was the lowest it had ever been.
9. In response to a question about interventions that made the biggest difference, Mr Leeson said a focus on literacy and numeracy was key, but some pupils needed additional support to develop the skills to learn; too many started secondary schools with inadequate reading and writing skills and too many 16-year olds failed to get GCSEs in English and Maths thus limiting their opportunities to attend college.
10.In addition to using the Pupil Premium to improve literacy and numeracy, schools also had to focus on emotional and social development so that pupils became resilient learners. Children without such resilience remained fearful when approaching new tasks or when encountering difficulties which had a significant impact on their ability to learn. Small amounts of resilience building had a big impact on achievement.
11.It was difficult to separate the impact of the Pupil Premium from other activities and interventions; however, there had been small gains over the last few years even if the attainment gap had not narrowed. Data for 2017 showed that the difference in delay in learning was 4.3 months nationally and in Kent it was 2.8 months. For Key Stage 1, children eligible for free school meals did better in all outcomes than in previous years. At KS1 the attainment of pupils in receipt of pupil premium went up and was better than expected although a gap remained between the attainment of this group and the attainment of all pupils. The attainment of children in care was significantly better in 2017 than it had been in 2016.
12.Secondary schools were not achieving as well for children eligible for free school meals. Attainment outcomes for FSM pupils improved in 2017 across all measures compared with 2016, but gaps remained wide because of improved outcomes for all pupils.
13.The attainment gap had not narrowed significantly over the last 2-3 years and was still around 33%. Overall secondary schools were less effective at closing the gap. While KS2 results had increased year on year for the previous 5 years, the benefit of narrowing the gap at that stage was not being reflected in GCSEs. The inability of secondary schools might be attributable to the fact that the curriculum had narrowed, all assessments were now by examination rather than by coursework and expectations were more academic. Secondary schools generally found it harder to divide pupils into small groups for a substantial proportion of the week. There was evidence to suggest that focussing the Pupil Premium on ensuring small group teaching in years 7 and 8 to ensure pupils caught up had an impact on attainment.
14.In response to a question about educational attainment in the UK compared with other countries, Mr Leeson said that the UK provides an excellent education for the most able youngsters and spends less on Early Years and more on University than other comparator countries. He also said it was a scandal that the post 16 and further education sectors were both underfunded and had been subjected to significant cuts in finance. He said that there was more child poverty in the UK than in comparator countries and referred to the value placed on education, culture and literacy in some countries. In particular, Finland had the most successful education system, and in Italy 70% of young people were expected to go to university compared with a relatively recent target of 45% in the UK.
15.Mr Leeson said that eligibility for free school meals was a useful indicator particularly as it was good at identifying individual children in need. However it excluded children whose families are just above the threshold and who might be disadvantaged. IDACI and other measures using indices of multiple deprivation based on post codes were more sensitive. Mr Leeson also said that some schools could do more to identify poorer pupils.
16.In response to a question, Mr Leeson said the Vulnerable Learners Strategy was scheduled to be updated in 2018. Its focus would be on: the closer integration of Children’s Social Care and Early Years services; support for vulnerable families; and ensuring Early Help services were having a big impact. This recognised the fact that for children to develop and be successful it was essential they had a good home and parenting, a good school and good mental health and wellbeing. To this end, the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services had been recommissioned and had seen a reduction in waiting times; mental health workers were now embedded in Pupil Referral Units and Early Years Services; and £10million had been received for the Headstart Programme to develop resilience in children. The Vulnerable Learners Strategy would be “more of the same” but with a greater emphasis on integration and a continuous review to ensure resources followed a child’s needs. Mr Leeson said the work of the Select Committee should feed into the development of the Vulnerable Learners Strategy.
17.In response to questions Mr Leeson said that:
· The recommendations of a previous Select Committee on Social Mobility and Grammar Schools had resulted in grammar schools tweaking their admissions criteria as well as additional work in primary schools to encourage children to apply to grammar schools. Nevertheless, children who were eligible for free school meals were not well represented in grammar schools.
· Children eligible for free school meals were over-represented in the frequent absence figures. In order to address persistent absence the School Attendance Service was embedded in the Early Help Services.
· Ofsted spent very little time in schools and tended not to dig deeply into how schools used Pupil Premium funding. Ofsted could, however, downgrade its assessment of a school if outcomes for children eligible for free school meals were considered inadequate.
· School governors and parents should be holding schools to account for the use of Pupil Premium funding particularly where schools were failing to publish information about its use and impact on its website. Even where schools embedded Pupil Premium funding into the overall budget and invested it in whole class teaching they should be asked about the impact on outcomes for children eligible for it
· Holding schools to account for the use of the Pupil Premium funding was on par with holding schools to account for the use of any other budgets.
· Gaps in attainment became wider as children got older, particularly when they were not helped to “catch up”. This could suggest that it was necessary to front load support in the Early Years stages and retain a focus on catching up for Years 7 and 8.
· It was more difficult to have a comprehensive strategy for vulnerable learners in the post 16 sector. The Key Stage 4 curriculum was designed to ensure all young people could make a positive next step.
· Whether a school was an academy or not had no impact on Pupil Premium funding or obligations. Schools that had become academies in the first phase had often been failing schools and had made significant improvements following conversion. However, schools that converted to academies after 2015 were often already performing well and had shown little improvement since they converted. Improvement in performance and outcomes always depended on a school’s culture and its commitment to adopting evidence-based interventions and practices to improve the attainment of its vulnerable learners. It was important that Kent County Council positioned itself strongly to ensure successful outcomes for children in care and other vulnerable learners. Evidence had shown that if parents who were struggling had regular support, the lives of their children improve. New York City had halved the number of children coming into care by helping parents during a crisis or provide access to therapeutic support.
· Focussing resources on Early Years and primary education had the biggest impact
· Engaging vulnerable learners and their families needed to continue as a focus. A number of agencies had pooled resources to organise family fun-days in order to engage parents. It was however harder for youth hubs to engage with parents of adolescents.
18.In response to comments about the integration of Early Help and Specialist Children’s Services, Mr Leeson said that Early Help Services should only close a case when there was a positive outcome unless the Police were involved. Most Early Help interventions lasted for between 12 and 20 weeks though some cases lasted longer. It was also possible to “step up” and “step down” between Early Help and Social Care and regular panel meetings which included representatives from the school, social workers and early help workers, were held to consider whether to “step up” or “step down” support.
19.In response to a question about Queenborough School’s comments that it had noticed big differences in the readiness of children for school among children who had attended the nursery attached to the school and those who had attended other nurseries, Mr Leeson said it was important that children, particularly disadvantaged children, attended nursery. He said that 75% of children eligible for free nursery places for two-year olds had been taken up and although this was the best take up rate to date, it was a shame that not all children were benefitting. Mr Leeson further said that the provision of children’s centres had not been significantly cut; there were 85 in the county and they had become Early Years’ Hubs.
20.The Chairman thanked Mr Leeson for attending the meeting and answering Members’ questions.