Lee Elliot Major asks whether schools are now ‘livin on a prayer’
In the earliest days of presenting the then pupil premium toolkit, I would entertain audiences of teachers by playing a famous song by a 1980’s girl band. “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)” may seem an odd choice when discussing a meta-analytic review of education research providing best bets for improving the results of poor kids. But at the heart of our guidance on what had worked in classrooms was the now famous ‘Bananarama Principle’.
Coined by my toolkit partner Professor Steve Higgins, the principle summed up our message to school heads: it’s not what you spend but how you spend it that counts. In our introduction to the toolkit, now the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Professor Rob Coe had argued convincingly that there was little link between money spent on education around the globe and actual pupil outcomes.
Five years on the question now however is a rather frightening one: is the Bananarama Principle dead? We produced the toolkit to help schools spend their newly designated pupil premium funds for poorer pupils effectively. At the time the overall money for pupils was being protected.
That funding environment seems like a distant memory now. Rumours continue to circulate that the Government may row back on its planned reforms to the schools funding formula which would redistribute money across the school system in a more consistent rational manner.
We wholeheartedly support the emphasis on supporting poorer pupils under the new system – as our response to the Government’s consultation sets out. But the problem is that this debate is overshadowed by the much bigger challenge of looming significant real terms cuts to funding overall.
These cuts to school funding of up to 8% over the next few years, amid growing costs of staff, threaten to cut into the core work of education. Schools will inevitably have to let go of good teachers to make ends meet. Some of the gains in achievement during the last few decades may be lost.
There are good reasons why the quantum of education spend should in fact be increasing. Inequalities outside the school gates are widening. The boom in out of school private tutoring has been largely fuelled by the middle classes. And the gap between society’s have and have-nots relates not just to economic capital but social and cultural capital as well – the non-academic attributes so important in getting on in life. It is often these extra activities – visits to museums, trips to cultural events – that fall victim in times of financial hardship.
So, I can no longer look a school head straight in the eye, and ask what ineffective practice can you stop funding? There simply is no room to manoeuvre. Indeed, what we need is a national debate on what the minimum funding per pupil should be. The ‘Bananarama Principle’ no longer fits. For our embattled teachers, other 1980s classic songs seem much more apposite: ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen perhaps. Or even Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On a Prayer.’