Narrowing the gap with the pupil premium?

Will extending the Pupil Premium to the early years help pupils from poorer families to achieve?  Judith Judd says evidence suggests the money needs to be well spent.

Picture credit: Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Ireland

Next April, England’s poorest three and four-year-olds will have a price tag on their heads. Those who make use of their free allocation of nursery education will each arrive with an extra £300, part of a £50 million package agreed by the Government.

The funding is an extension of the pupil premium scheme that began in primary and secondary schools three years ago. This year that means an additional sum of £1300 for every disadvantaged pupil in a primary school and £935 in a secondary school.

No-one in Whitehall seems to have spotted the illogicality of tackling the effects of poverty among older pupils and then working backwards but that will surprise few early years campaigners. England was one of the last countries in Europe to recognise that good nursery education is a useful tool in the battle to narrow the achievement gap.

Now, few would dispute its educational and social benefits. The last Labour government and the coalition government have increased the number of free nursery places and their latest proposal would extend the scheme to disadvantaged two-year-olds.

Denmark already has 91 per cent of one and two-year-olds in daycare and Norway 80 per cent. The German government recently guaranteed an entitlement to nursery education for all children between the ages of one and three because of its concern about those who were falling behind.

Evidence of the need to address the problem early abounds. Research shows the size of the gap between the richest and the poorest pupils by the time they start school – particularly in the UK and the United States. A report on Social Mobility published by the Sutton Trust in 2012 found that the gap in school readiness between four and five-year-olds in the UK was 19 months. In the United States, it was 22 months but in Australia the figure was 14.5 and in Canada 10.6.

But what difference does early years education make to disadvantaged pupils? The Education Endowment Foundation, a charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement through research, says that its analysis shows that it is one of the most powerful tools in narrowing the gap, albeit, an expensive one. Typically, children who benefit make about six months additional progress.

Last year, the National Foundation for Educational Research said in a report for Ofsted: “Interventions in their early years have the potential to improve outcomes that are fundamental to their future life chances and to narrow the gap between disadvantaged and other children.”

The picture is complicated. At present, the foundation says, there is little evidence about which type of intervention works best and it is conducting a series of trials. However, some common threads are emerging from recent research.

A report by the think tank Centre Forum published in July this year says that free early education for all will not in itself narrow the attainment gap: the poorest children must be given priority. In the United States, Jane Waldfogel from Columbia University argues, controversially, that nursery programmes should be targeted at low-income children as they reap the greatest benefits and that their luckier peers should pay fees.

At least three recent studies point to the importance of parents. The Centre Forum report emphasises the need to support them so that they can help their children with vocabulary and language construction.

A Joseph Rowntree report also suggests that parental involvement is the key and the 2013 report from the National Foundation for Educational Research agrees. The latter found “robust evidence of the impact of family learning, literacy and numeracy programmes.”

All these studies also say that the poorest children need well-qualified staff if they are to catch up with their peers. Yet Dr Ludovica Gambaro from the London School of Economics says that governments have put wider access and affordability before quality. Her study suggests that early years services for disadvantaged children receive worse Ofsted ratings than those catering for more affluent children.

It is not yet clear whether the Government’s promise of two new qualifications for early years educators will make a difference.

How long do the effects of good education for under-fives last? The Education Endowment Foundation says that most studies suggest that they wear off over time. The Sutton Trust found that the gaps between children increased as they grew older, particularly after the age of 11. An Ofsted report in July this year says that the pupil premium in schools is boosting poorer children’s prospects but said it was too early to talk of a significant narrowing of the gap nationally. Of the 151 schools sample, the gap was closing in 86 and in 12 it had almost vanished.

The battle against poverty through education has to be fought at every stage of a child’s schooling but the earlier it starts the better. If the early years pupil premium is well spent, it will pay huge dividends for us all.