Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure.
Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has taken schools to task for spending the 'pupil premium' unwisely. Apparently, half of our schools are using their share of this £1.25 billion bonanza to hire teaching assistants and other expenses which are not directly aimed at improving outcomes for our most 'vulnerable' children.
I don't often disagree with Wilshaw—after all, he turned one of the worst schools in England (Hackney Downs) into one of the best (Mossbourne Academy). He clearly knows the ropes: 58% of Mossbourne pupils have 'special needs', which brings in an additional 'pupil premium'. Obviously, this funding worked a treat for Wilshaw: an astounding 86% of his pupils got 5 good GCSEs. But somehow, it beggars belief that there is any school where only 42% of the pupils don't have 'special needs'.
The important thing to note here is that Wilshaw spent the money as he saw fit—he used it to address the specific problems of his pupils and his school. At the time he was performing his little miracle, Ofsted (headed by progressive stalwarts such as Christine Gilbert) were telling schools to do more or less the opposite of what he was doing.
The Coalition has wisely backed off from ring-fencing the pupil premium, even if they are setting the Ofsted pit-bull after laggards. Central government direction of education spending does not have a good record. Witness the Reading Recovery fiasco: when Gove stopped funding for this egregious 'special needs' programme for slow readers, it was costing £6,000 for every pupil it presumably saved. By contrast, our own independently-evaluated intervention cost less than £200 per pupil.
From the standpoint of self-interest, we might be expected to welcome Wilshaw's intervention. Our books are just the sort that he wants schools to buy. But we know from experience that our customers are already committed to ensuring that every child can read well. We seriously doubt that the pupil premium has brought us any new business.
If schools are really spending the pupil premium on frills, perhaps it is an indication that they don't really need the money all that badly. In real terms education spending increased 70% under New Labour. But the real problem with extra funds for supposedly 'vulnerable' children is that it reinforces the myth that they can't learn until all of their disadvantages are dealt with. It allows dysfunctional schools to blame their failures on supposedly dysfunctional parents.
Michael Wilshaw should know better than to think that his intervention will raise the achievement of children from poor homes. We need more good teachers, and we will not get them if Ofsted inspectors are forever telling them what to do.