Disadvantaged children and academies: the pupil premium and policy transfer in England

By Basma B. Yaghi

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

At the end of primary school in England in 2019, socioeconomically disadvantaged children were on average 9.3 months behind their peers academically, with this gap almost doubling by the end of secondary school. The Pupil Premium (PP) gives schools extra funding for each child receiving Free School Meals. This has been the government’s flagship policy for tackling the socioeconomic attainment gap since 2011, with £2.44 billion spent on the PP for 1.99 million pupils in 2020-2021.

How do different types of academies use the Pupil Premium, justify this provision, and what kind of policy transfer, if any, do they engage in? This is what my research published in Research Papers in Education sought to discover. Academies were selected as they are publicly funded, independently run schools constituting 37% of primary schools and 78% of secondary schools. The government is also planning that “far more” schools belong to MATs. System leader MATs have over 30 academies and the government expects them to spread successful practices, eliciting the question of whether they transfer policies, for example the PP. My study utilised comparative case studies of five primary academies belonging to one of the largest system leader MATs and five standalone academies, employing semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis.

The findings showed that while both kinds of academies have similar types of PP policies, i.e., academic, pastoral and extra-curricular, their justifications for these policies and extent of policy transfer vary greatly. The MAT academies I researched engage in voluntary policy transfer between schools more frequently as MATs’ structure facilitates this. For example, headteachers learn from one another through termly forums and regular peer visits. Moreover, MAT academies often have values that are shared within the MAT,  with this common ethos making policies more transferable. In contrast, standalone academies’ more isolated nature makes policy transfer between schools more difficult. Only one standalone academy studied transfers policies since it is part of the local Teaching School Alliance. However, despite government expectations that larger MATs are influential and share expertise with other schools, I found no evidence for this.

The study uncovered greater nuance in the types of policy transfer undertaken in MAT academies. The MAT exerts coercive policy transfer by pushing certain policies, such as undertaking curriculum “deep dives” that challenge academies to evaluate the curriculum’s depth and impact for disadvantaged children. Indirect coercive transfer, where schools are implicitly directed towards a policy, also occurs. For instance, PP reviews with training, data analysis and a webinar are offered for schools which request them, and underperforming schools may feel obliged to do so. Regardless, while the MAT may impose an overall policy, the detail of its implementation is delegated to the academy, granting them some level of autonomy. To illustrate, one academy was compelled to adopt retrieval practices as a school improvement strategy. However, the headteacher exerted her agency to communicate with other headteachers and voluntarily draw lessons from their academies to inform her academy’s retrieval practices. Therefore, MAT academies’ policy transfer has differing degrees of coerciveness and conscious decision.

An unexpected finding was that MAT academies exercise greater flexibility in tailoring their PP policies; for example, providing English as an Additional Language classes where there are high proportions of immigrant PP students. Alternatively, standalone academies mainly have general interventions including small group tutoring and breakfast clubs, which are not necessarily adapted to accommodate students’ varying needs. This difference could be because the MAT has set the groundwork of policies for its academies through coercive transfer, giving them more space to be innovative in adjusting their policies.

Surprisingly, standalone academies were more likely to draw on evidence as the foundation for their policies and discuss the evidence base in greater depth. MAT academies only cited research evidence as a justification for their policies to a limited degree. This could be because MATs are expected to collate evidence for their schools. Hence their academies may not feel the need to reference evidence in their PP policy documents, as policies directed from the MAT should already be evidence-based.

Overall, my study has shown that academies with different structures lean towards different sources to inform these policies. System leader MAT academies are well-equipped to transfer policies from their MAT and academies within the MAT. They also adapt their policies to meet school-specific needs more often, while standalone academies rely more heavily on evidence.

This is significant because the government favours MATs and suggests they promote inter-school collaboration and evidence utilisation. Therefore, whether standalone or system leader MAT academies are perceived more positively depends on the extent to which evidence-based policy or policy transfer are prioritised as policy justifications. Yet these do not need to be in tension with one another. The government could promote policy transfer between schools by formalising schools’ access to successful practices. This could occur by encouraging schools to join a Teaching School Alliance where they may learn policies. Indeed, the only standalone academy in the study which engaged in policy transfer belonged to a Teaching School Alliance, and this policy could cater for the 14% of academies which are standalone and not MAT academies. To encourage greater evidence utilisation, schools could be required to employ evidence when providing the reasoning for their policies in the PP documents, with the government’s PP Strategy Statement templates including specific sections for this. These policy implications are critical since COVID-19’s disproportionately negative effect on disadvantaged children’s attainment has intensified the need for effective PP policies.

Basma B. Yaghi is a Research Assistant at the Department of Social Policy in the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has an MSc in International Social and Public Policy (Research) from LSE. She is on Twitter.

Keywords: disadvantage; academies; policy transfer; pupil premium; multi-academy trust; standalone academy.

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels