Cash boost for Norfolk schools

The government's new pupil premium fund aims to close the attainment gap between the country's most disadvantaged youngsters and their peers. Now a Norfolk MP has investigated how the money is being used.

Not even a year into the initiative, schools in this county believe the pupil premium cash is already having a positive impact on the often-overlooked pockets of deprivation found here.

A report by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has found headteachers in his constituency are using the money to fund extra support staff, pay for additional resources like books and musical instruments, and help ensure youngsters do not miss out on all-important school trips.

Ever since it was written into the coalition agreement, Liberal Democrats have been waxing lyrical about the pupil premium – a manifesto commitment which became a reality thanks to the party's role in government.

For every child registered for free school meals (FSM), his or her school receives an extra �488 on top of its basic funding to use specifically to support those youngsters from poorer backgrounds.

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The figure is set to rise steadily over the course of this parliament, with an eventual funding pot of �2.5bn in 2014/15 meaning schools will go on to get �600 per FSM pupil.

Figures recently released by the department for education (DfE) found just 27.9pc of secondary school students eligible for free school meals in Norfolk achieved the government's gold standard of at least five A* to C grades last year – compared with 59pc of their peers.

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The pupil premium funding will, according to Norfolk's Lib Dem MPs, 'break the link between family poverty and poor educational achievement' by ensuring cash is targeted at children most in need, no matter where they live.

And Mr Lamb's investigation, which saw him write to every school in north Norfolk, has found many of his constituency's headteachers seem to agree.

According to Steve Godson, headteacher at Cromer Junior School, which received a total of �17,080, the money is long overdue.

'Finally, after 10 years of headship at Cromer, the town and its immediate surroundings has been recognised for the deprivation it has,' he said. 'In previous years, so much has gone to the larger areas, leaving the smaller pockets under-funded.'

His comments echo those of Fred Corbett, the soon-to-retire assistant director of children's services at Norfolk County Council, earlier this week who said Norfolk's widely-dispersed areas of deprivation often went unnoticed by government initiatives.

Mr Lamb said: 'Fred's right. For areas of concentrated urban deprivation, those schools have been getting funding through various routes, but it is those schools in the more rural areas where it has not been noticed in the past, but is there – often with a vengeance.

'The concept of the [pupil premium] money following the child is really important. It recognises deprivation wherever it is.'

In total, Norfolk schools are getting more than �7m this year as a result of the scheme, with more than �500,000 going to those in north Norfolk.

Mr Lamb's report has found the money is being spent in three main ways.

Many schools are funding extra help for their most vulnerable pupils in the form of extra teaching assistants, additional numeracy and literacy classes, more one-to-one time, or further training for existing support staff.

For Mundesley Junior School, that includes making use of the Benjamin Foundation's specialist counselling services, Time For You, which offers emotional support to youngsters affected by family break-ups, behavioural problems or low self esteem.

Sharon Matthews, director of operations at the North Walsham-based charity, said it was proving a highly-valued service. She said: 'Schools realise, with the demand of the national curriculum and league tables, they don't always have the time to sit down and do the individual work with children they need. To be able to procure that service using the pupil premium allows them to offer a wider range of support services.'

Other schools have used the money to buy extra equipment like computer software and the funding is also allowing students from poorer backgrounds to make the most of extra-curricular activities like music tuition and school trips.

Karen Dukes, headteacher at Neatishead Primary School, said: 'We use the pupil premium money to provide the same resources that other children may more easily be able to afford. For example... all children go on school trips and the older ones on school residents – so we ensure everyone can go.'

The schools' responses also suggest they are already seeing the effects of the extra funding.

Jan Harazdiuk, headteacher at Millfield Primary school, North Walsham, said: 'So far it is difficult to evaluate the true effect... However, initial analysis demonstrates that the gap is indeed narrowing for children within the FSM group at Millfield.'

Alison Thomas, county council cabinet member for children's services, said: 'I'm really pleased that schools in north Norfolk feel the pupil premium has already had such a positive impact.'

But not all the feedback on the initiative was positive and a number of school leaders raised concerns about the use of the free school meals register as a measure of deprivation and worries that, with a change of government, the much-needed funding could disappear again.

Mr Lamb said he would be raising those concerns with ministers, but hoped the evidence in the report would go some way to convincing successive governments of the importance of the pupil premium.

He added: 'It's an urgent priority for the country to do this. By the age of seven or so, a less able child from a better off background has overtaken a more able student from a poorer background. We want to make sure every child has the chance to succeed.'

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