Tackling Child Poverty

21st May 2014

The government is currently consulting on its Child Poverty Strategy.

In this blog I set out my response to three of the questions that emerge from the strategy.

Are there any other policy areas the government should look at in order to help close the attainment gap?
1. Where pupils face mental health problems this is an enormous barrier to their progress. Cuts to mental health services risk exacerbating what was already an area of concern. Therefore:

  • Schools and mental health services should work more closely and where appropriate, services could be delivered in schools. This should include an expansion of school counseling services.
  1. As families in council housing are forced out of expensive areas to cheaper towns (like Hastings) the intake and character of these areas will change dramatically and schools will face new and unfamiliar issues. Therefore:
  • Aside from the need to avoid uprooting families and communities in this way, areas experiencing substantial internal migration need to receive support and resources to adjust to new circumstances.
  1. Schools do not exist in a vacuum from society: Heads tell us that hardship faced by families is having a knock-on impact on schools (for example where families face housing crises). Therefore:
  • Welfare policy as well as decisions at local level need to take impact on pupils into greater account.
  • It may be an inconvenient and unpopular finding, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s systematic research review showed overwhelming evidence that cash transfers make a difference to children’s outcomes. They also ‘found evidence that household financial resources are important for children’s outcomes and that this effect is causal.’
  1. There are many distinctions between the upbringing of disadvantaged pupils and their more privileged peers in terms of access to social and cultural capital. These inequalities go far beyond academic outcomes (although these are, of course, crucial). If wider distinctions are not reduced then the playing field will never be level – but schools cannot take responsibility for everything. Therefore:
  • Youth services should be reshaped and acknowledged as a potential source of much of the non-academic input that teachers do not have the time nor expertise to provide. This might include access to sports, arts, culture, ‘character shaping’ experiences, sex and drugs education and careers guidance. Teachers do not feel well placed to provide these but as the National Youth Agency has pointed out, youth workers, charities and social enterprises have invaluable expertise in these fields. Furthermore as London Youth emphasise, the voluntary nature of youth-workers’ relationship with young people can support more effective work in these areas.
  • Hutchings and Francis have shown the vast differences in access to cultural experiences available to pupils from different socio-economic groups. They recommend the establishment of vouchers to pay for the access that is often denied to disadvantaged young people. This would make it easier for disadvantaged parents to offer their children opportunities and would be a non-prescriptive way of encouraging them to do so.

Where should the government go next with the pupil premium?

  1. Schools are not yet thinking through their pupil premium spending decisions in the way they need to. Accountability should be focused on the decision making process that has led to spending decisions in order to push schools to be more strategic. In other words, why schools have spent their money in a particular way is important, not just how they have spent it.

Schools should reflect on their disadvantaged pupils’ achievement, identify barriers to success and match their response to pupils’ needs, rather than dipping into a pick-and-mix of interventions they think are popular with government and Ofsted. An emphasis on planning for spending would also mitigate some schools’ tendency to ‘reverse account’ for spending i.e. to subsidise existing spending using pupil premium funds. Therefore:

  • As per the Head Teachers’ Round Table recommendation 3b, schools should publish a data commentary. This could include trends in performance by disadvantaged pupils and factors contributing to it and form the basis of pupil premium spending decisions.
  • Language should be shifted from ‘effective interventions’ to ‘effective responses’ – emphasising that different responses are appropriate to different issues. This would also help schools go ‘beyond interventions’by improving teaching and learning, something that makes a huge difference to disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes.
  • During London Challenge, small sums of money were available to schools to ‘pump prime’ school improvement and collaboration; in order to access funds, schools had to identify improvement priorities and state how they would address them. This ‘voucher based’ approach side-stepped the ring-fencing/autonomy dichotomy and may have led to more strategic leadership and accelerated improvement in priority areas. Pupil Premium funding should continue to increase but any additional funds should go into a pot (potentially managed at a regional level to promote area based improvement) that schools apply to in order to achieve their identified priorities in a planned way.

Is CPD in its current form effective? What role can central government play in improving it and aligning it with the ‘closing the gap’ agenda?

  1. David Weston at the Teacher Development Trust is the person to talk to about this.
  2. So called ‘Baker Days’ remain the staple of CPD in many schools and this approach is outdated: it makes for an overly rigid structure and encourages schools to run one-off INSET days with someone brought in to ‘run some training’. There is often no follow up, little personalisation to teachers’ needs and a lack of good practice sharing. There is also no guarantee that the input will be of high quality. Instead, CPD should be (amongst other things) ongoing, personalised and practical.
  • Teachers should continue be entitled to the equivalent of (at least) 5 days training a year. Although schools will always need some whole staff days to deal with whole school issues, schools should be encouraged to be more flexible about how they use their ‘five days.’ For example, 40 hours could be spread throughout the year so teachers can engage in continuous/regular, appropriate and perhaps accredited professional development over the course of the year.
  • Teachers should be entitled to (and expected to) spend at least a half day a year in another school – this would be a tiny amount of time and much less than would be ideal… but in many schools it would already be an increase!