More cash for schools with poorer pupils

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Labour sought to steal the opposition parties’ clothes today by pledging to introduce its own cash incentive to schools to take on pupils from poor homes.

The move, announced by Schools Secretary Ed Balls today, means that all the main three political parties are now committed to giving schools a “pupil premium” for taking in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The policy, first espoused by the Liberal Democrats and also part of the Conservatives’ education manifesto, stems from fears that top performing schools are using covert selection to ensure an intake of middle class students.

Even though a compulsory schools admission code should have outlawed obvious cases of hidden selection, such as through parental interviews, teachers’ leaders are adamant loopholes still exist.

One example is inviting parents to look around a school before making an application.

The “pupil premium” is designed as an incentive – or even bribe, as some education experts claim – to schools to ensure disadvantaged youngsters get a fair deal in the admissions stakes.

Under the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ proposals, it would be a flat rate national premium paid to a school per child it takes on who qualifies for free school meals.

The Liberal Democrats think the payment would be £2,500 per child, or £2.5bn a year in total. They say they would fund it by reducing tax credits and scrapping the Children’s Trust Fund set up by Labour. The Conservatives have so far not put a figure on their proposals.

Labour’s “pupil premium” differs from the other two parties in that it would leave it up to local authorities to determine how best to measure deprivation in their area.

Labour says funding would come from £3bn worth of deprivation grants already distributed to local authorities but often held centrally by them rather than passed on to schools.

New laws would compel the councils to pass on all the cash to individual schools by 2015.

“A nationally-set pupil premium would not take account of local needs, would prescribe a single amount of funding to overcome deprivation across the whole country and would, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. require severe and immediate cuts to school budgets or other public services to pay for it,” said Mr Balls.

“So it is our intention that the definition and therefore the level of the pupil premium is agreed locally so that it can properly reflect local need, circumstances and challenges.”

David Laws, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesman, described Mr Balls’ announcement as “a pretty desperate attempt to re-package existing deprivation funding for schools”.

“What is missing is any suggestion of additional money,” he said