Monday, 13 December 2010

Welcome Pupil Premium (shame about EMA and Activity Pass)

Jonathan Calder has bemoaned the lack of Lib Dem blogging activity about the announcement over the weekend that the Pupil Premium will give schools £430 per year for every pupil from a family on low income.

There's no doubt that the Pupil Premium is welcome, but it won't be greeted with unbounded joy. At the same time as it is being introduced, we are losing the EMA - which I would argue is vital in places like North Cornwall. PP is also a shadow of a scheme that has been running for a number of years in North Cornwall and which is being lost.

The reasoning behind additional support to pupils from poorer families is that they have tended to achieve less from school and, in some cases have required extra support whilst in school. The pupil premium will give the extra funds to the headteacher who will decide how best to spend the money.

It will be interesting to see how this money gets spent because, whilst it is given because of the pupils from poorer families, the only limitation on spending is that it should benefit these pupils. Note that this does not mean 'exclusively benefit'. So will headteachers use the money to employ additional classroom assistants or family school advisors, or will they put the money into healthier school meals, additional teaching materials or even a new classroom?

Whatever they choose to do, we will know because of the condition in the plan that schools must publish how they use the money.

So pupil premium is a good thing. But there will be a worry about how much schools will actually get. The funding will be given on the basis of the number of pupils who receive free school meals. The trouble with that is that take-up in some areas, including North Cornwall, is very low. Many parents who are entitled to claim free meals for their children do not do so, or dip in and dip out of the system. So there will be a challenge for schools to encourage those families entitled to take up the meals so that they can claim the PP cash.

And whilst the Pupil Premium is being introduced, the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is being scrapped. This is a payment of up to £30 a week to pupils from poorer backgrounds who stay on in education after the age of 16. The idea is that it stops these young people dropping out of school at a time when there are few jobs for them to go into. It's not perfect as there is no way that the funds can be targeted at those who would not stay in school or college without it, but it is incredibly good news for the many thousands of Cornish young people who receive it. In my area of Launceston, we have the lowest take up of post 16 education in the whole of Cornwall with more than a third of 16-19 year olds not in education, employment or training. How many more will drop out when EMA goes?

In North Cornwall, we will also see the end of the Activity Pass - a pilot scheme which gave a notional fund to poorer parents which could be used for out of school hours learning. This fund was over £1000 per child and entitlement went to pupils on free school meals or whose families received the higher rate of child tax credit. Activity Passes were used both for half-term activities and for after school clubs. Crucially, in rural areas at least, the passes could also fund the additional travel costs associated with out of school activities. Sadly, the Pupil Premium is unlikely to follow this lead.

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