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Funding lifeline for disadvantaged students in schools under the spotlight

The image depicts the cover of a recent report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office that looks critically at the impact of ongoing additional school funding for disadvantaged students. Its hard-hitting conclusions must not be ignored. They show 15 years of failure and little impact despite nearly a billion spent across schools from 2005 to 2020. Similar schemes operate across the rest of the UK and the report raises serious questions about where the money is going. There is no doubt that disadvantages at home impact upon how students get on at school. But the danger is that some opponents will seize upon the findings to argue that the money should be withdrawn since it appears to do no good. Wiser heads will ask about where the money is going before reaching such a perverse conclusion. This is a time of considerable danger for those with few advantages. A wider social intervention will be needed to address the problems, and it is unreasonable to expect schools to impact things beyond the school gate and their direct control. There is certainly a need for a closer, and more realistic, look at the situation.

On Wednesday the Northern Ireland Audit Office released a highly critical report on the effectiveness of funding for Schools, measured as progress in educational equality and attainment,  with ‘Closing the Gap – Social Deprivation and links to Educational Attainment’ (5th May 2021). It considered ‘Sure Start’ funding for families and children below school age and ‘Targeting Social Need’ (TSN) funds that are encompassed in the ‘Common Funding Scheme’ (CFS) for state funded schools. The House of Commons report ‘Education funding in Northern Ireland’ from 2019 provides an excellent background on this topic. In 2019/20, Sure Start and TSN came to 6.8% of the total £2.32 billion education budget: 73.7% of this for TSN. There are issues raised about ‘Sure Start’, however, the main concern applies to TSN funding and how it is used in Schools. This was reported in detail by the BBC who observed that ‘Education spending on NI's disadvantaged pupils 'ineffective' (BBCNI News 5th May 2021). The conclusions are a testament to years of abject failure to get a grip on a long-standing problem. Over £900 million has been pumped into Northern Ireland’s schools since 2015 with the aim of closing the wide attainment gap between students with the least and most advantages (£913 million for ‘Targeting Social Need’ (TSN) funding in the 15 years from 2005-06 to 2019-20).

The attainment gap persists.

The crux of the concern about effectiveness lies with the examination attainment results of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The level of disadvantage was assigned by Free School Meal Entitlement (FSME) in schools (96,686 or 28% of school students in Northern Ireland in 2019/20) and ‘postcode area’ defined in the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM) for Sure Start. There is no hiding from the outcome. While attainment has improved year on year for all students, the gap between those with fewer advantages and the rest is still very large: 29% in 2019/20 having narrowed marginally from 32.1% in 2005/6.
The result is clear in Figure 1 taken from the report. Here the gap is measured as the number of students achieving five GCSEs at grade A to C (including Mathematics and English).

The nature of the additional support offered across the UK.

On the surface, it seems that providing additional support for schools, based on the numbers of disadvantaged students attending, would seem wholly reasonable. However, its success depends upon how the schools use the funding in house. The lessons from Northern Ireland are not confined to that jurisdiction. Similar schemes operate across the UK and attainment gaps also persist. There is considerable flexibility and autonomy offered to schools. England is most similar to Northern Ireland and offers the ‘Pupil Premium’ to Schools (see also the House of Commons Report 11th March 2021 ‘The Pupil Premium’ that outlines how it is spent). A House of Commons report last month also sought more evidence on effectiveness by asking “How successful has recent UK Government policy and funding been in decreasing educational inequalities and attainment gaps?” However, reforms earlier this year have led to the accusation that changes in the date pupils are counted from January to October will lead to a massive cut in the aid of £125 million or 102,00 students omitted. This appears to be a stealth cut in funding that reflects the attitude and policy of the current government toward disadvantage. Scotland has an ‘Attainment Scotland Fund’ allocated to local authorities initially. Wales has the Pupil Development Grant (PDG), that was included in a comprehensive review back in October 2020 (Government Review of School Spending in Wales October 2020 ‘Building in evidence, fairness, transparency and clear expectations’).

What was the money used for?

Attempting to answer this question in Northern Ireland leads to perhaps the most shocking conclusion of the report. It seems there is little indication about what the additional money was used for. The headline figure of only 6% of schools reporting to the government’s TSN Planner for the 2018-19 academic year jumps out. There is no way any review can offer a solution until there is transparency about where the money has been going. This is very surprising, and it seems the government has taken its eye of the ball. This might reflect years of fractured politics and no leadership between 2017 and 2020.

Schools are afforded a considerable degree of flexibility and autonomy in how they deploy the additional funds. This leads to the suspicion that they are plugging other gaps in their budgets arising from overall cuts. This is understandable given the situation. Retaining staff would be a very high priority. The evidence for this came out in a survey of schools in England conducted by the Sutton Trust and released this week, ‘School Funding and Pupil Premium 2021’ (Sutton Trust 29th April 2021). This reinforced earlier conclusions from 2019 arising from research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) ‘Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey’. Both secondary heads (28%) and primary heads (35%) reported that pupil premium funding was being used to plug budget gaps elsewhere. This is substantially higher than the 27% and 22% respectively pre-pandemic in 2019.

Secondary heads (33%) and primary heads (47%) both reported cutting teaching assistants for financial reasons this year. Moreover, 33% also report cutting teaching staff and support staff at secondary schools. Such stringencies partly explain why some funds do not reach the disadvantaged students more directly.

Impact of the pandemic looms.

Clearly there are people from all corners of the UK who are becoming very concerned about the impact of the school lockdowns due to the pandemic. Poor access to online learning for students with few advantages will have had an added impact. However, the extent of this has yet to be revealed. The Northern Ireland Audit report offers this statement “The pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on the learning outcomes, mental health and wellbeing of all children and young people but may have a greater impact on those pupils who were already disadvantaged”.

Partly in response to the pandemic, a House of Commons report in April, ‘Inequalities in education, and attainment gaps: Horizon scanning’ (29th April 2021), asked some searching questions for the government to address. Two of these, “Is the COVID-19 pandemic likely to increase existing inequalities in education or create new inequalities?” and “Which groups are likely to be most disadvantaged?” must be addressed with considerable urgency.

Furthermore, a timely report today from Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Disadvantage gaps proving challenging to close in primary schools after Covid-19 disruption’ indicates that disadvantaged pupils have fallen further behind in maths as a result of the pandemic. This means things are going the wrong way, and fast.

Arguments that intelligence trumps support for the disadvantaged are circulating like vultures.

A major brake on government intervention is the theory that the only thing that matters is intelligence, and that this negates the need for support. It is inevitable that opponents of funding disadvantaged students will renew their efforts as a result. This will be greatly helped by a change in the law on ‘protecting freedom of speech in universities. It will soon provide a platform for such extreme views protected by law. Perhaps this is one of the main aims of the legislation. The basis of their case resides in theories about intelligence having a causal link to disadvantage. These excuses have been around for over one hundred years and only serve to protect the interests of families with more advantages.

The observations of the Northern Ireland Audit review fall neatly into the laps of those who advocate that privilege and intelligence are closely linked. This means there will be arguments made by those who adhere to the notion that it is not worth spending money on disadvantaged students if there is no measurable effect. This is dangerous nonsense that might lie at the heart of Conservative thinking.

TEFS offered a critique in detail of some of the thinking behind this (TEFS 10th January 2020 ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’). Dominic cummings Blog of February 2019 has had a lasting effect by dismissing the argument that “Kids who can read well come from homes with lots of books so let’s give families with kids struggling to read more books” and replacing it with the “truth” that “children and parents share genes that make them good at and enjoy reading, so causation is operating completely differently to the assumptions”. Earlier Boris Johnson was also keen to convince others in his speech at the Centre for Policy Studies. He referred to equality with, “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130”. Then, insists on “the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants” to support the idea that in the economy “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy” see TEFS 9th December 2019 ‘It’s all about equality, Brexit, the environment and the economy, not envy and greed’).

Yesterday, Peter Saunders (retired emeritus professor of sociology at Sussex University) further promoted his established views in Conservative Home (6th May 2021 ‘The myth of social immobility. Those who champion meritocracy are pursuing something we’ve basically already got’).

Added since posting. The student magazine 'The Tab' reported this on Monday 10th May 2021 with, ‘Private school students get into Oxbridge more because they’re just smarter, says professor’. Indeed, that simply says it all. However, The Tab counters Saunders naïve assertion that “The reason privately-educated kids get into Oxbridge in disproportionate numbers is that they are, on average, brighter” by citing research that shows “state schools pupils outperform private school pupils at university” as reported in the Guardian in 2015. This was based in good faith on the original report from HEFCE in 2015, ‘Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics’. But there was a fatal error in that report. The table cited was the wrong way around and the Tab failed to spot this. The original HEFCE report still available online has yet to be corrected. It was quickly spotted back in 2015 by the Centre for Education and Employment Research and reported in ‘HEFCE’s Blunder’. TES reported the error on the 3rd of November 2015 in ‘Private schools university report was wrong, authors admit’. Instead of “In 2013-14, 82 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second-class degree compared with 73 per cent of independent school graduates” the data transposition error meant it should have read “In 2013-14, 73 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second-class degree compared with 82 per cent of independent school graduates”.

The damage was done, and the error obviously persists with underlying doubts about which is correct. But it still seems that state school students perform better than expected considering their situation. The advantages of being from a family, who can afford an independent school education that carries over into universities, makes more sense. But the idea that they are inherently brighter is too convenient a theory for those profiting from private education.

These are not new ideas.

The promotion of deterministic educational outcomes based on inherent intelligence has been around for over one hundred years. A very good example arose in The Scotsman on 22nd May 2008 in ‘Working classes are less intelligent, says evolution expert’. The assertion that “Working-class students have lower IQs than those from wealthier backgrounds and should not be expected to win places at top universities” might seem credible to some. The idea is supported in an article by Bruce Charlton of Newcastle University in the Journal ‘Medical Hypotheses’ the same year ‘Pioneering studies of IQ by G.H. Thomson and J.F. Duff – An example of established knowledge subsequently ‘hidden in plain sight’

But this is merely a rehash of observations made on school students in Northumberland in 1923 by Godfrey Thompson. Delving further into the evidence reveals many flaws in the conclusions from ‘The Social and Geographical Distribution of Intelligence in Northumberland’ (James F. Duff and Godfrey H. Thomson. British Journal of Psychology, October 1923). The mean IQ of children aged between 11 and 13 appears to change in relation to the occupation of their parents. Those from poorer households had on average a lower IQ than those brought up in the homes of professional class parents. However, the shift of a few percent is not very great and there would be considerable overlap. Indeed, bearing in mind the circumstances of the most disadvantaged, it is more surprising they appear to have done so well in the tests.

Further investigation revealed that the type of test used is very suspect. These were described in 1921 in ’The Northumberland Mental Tests’ (Thomson, Godfrey British Journal of Psychology, December 1921). The nature of the questions demanded a fair degree of reading and comprehension ability to decipher the instructions. Amongst the familiar word and number series questions is one of my favourites that illustrates the problem well in Figure 2. How many eleven year olds today would tackle such a question?
Thompson himself was aware of the limitations and acknowledged them in a comprehensive text based upon his lectures, 'Instinct, Intelligence and Character', published in 1924. He accepted that his study might have been affected by some preselection in schools “It is true also that the 3,000 children tested at the time included a large proportion who were put forward by their headmasters as candidates for scholarships”. Such scholarships enabled students to continue their education beyond the school leaving age of 14 that existed at the time under the Fisher Education Act of 1918. Whilst referring to “that intelligence of a superior sort”, Thompson also acknowledges ‘The Influence of Schooling’ in a detailed treatise on the issue. Indeed, disentangling ‘native intelligence’ from educational attainment was a problem back then and he indicates that “Tests more independent of schooling, however, would be a great boon in doing Justice to children who have had different educational opportunities”. He goes onto say “But, indeed, it seems incredible that such great lack of schooling should not depress the intelligence”.

The simple fact is that the governments in all jurisdictions in the UK provide some additional funding for schools based upon the numbers of disadvantaged students they take in. The problem is that the gap in attainment is persisting. Opponents will seize on this to cut the funding that is seen as ineffective. Using the argument that less advantaged students lack intelligence, it could be concluded naïvely that more funding will not work. Yet it appears that overall cuts in school budgets are being plugged by funding intended for their disadvantaged students. This means that they are simply treading water, and the gap will widen further if the funding is cut. A wider social inequality lies at the root of a problem that schools cannot fix with measures taken inside the school gates alone. There is a lot more to be done.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and Planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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