More than a third of headteachers - 34 per cent – say they are using pupil premium funding to plug gaps in school budgets – a rise from 23 per cent in 2019.
The problem was found to be particularly pronounced in primary schools, with 35 per cent of heads reporting that they used pupil premium funding in this way, compared with 28 per cent of secondary heads.
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More than 1,500 teachers were polled in a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) on behalf of the Sutton Trust.
The Sutton Trust said the findings suggested "that the cost to schools of coping with the pandemic is having an impact on funding earmarked for disadvantaged pupils".
"Today’s polling comes on the back of a large body of research that shows how disadvantaged pupils have suffered the most because of the disruption to schooling caused by the pandemic. The additional funding schools get through the pupil premium has never been more important," a statement from the charity added.
It notes that a change to the reporting date for the pupil premium "has meant that schools are set to lose tens of millions of pounds". The change means that the government will calculate the number of children attracting pupil premium funding from April based on a census from last October, and not in January, as schools had been expecting.
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Previously, Tes has reported on how heads feared that the change will "wipe out" government funding earmarked for Covid catch-up.
And this week, education secretary Gavin Williamson accused his shadow Labour counterpart Kate Green of "moaning and complaining" when she questioned him about the change.
As the number of pupils becoming eligible for pupil premium funding grows as a result of the pandemic, The Sutton Trust and its sister charity the Education Endowment Foundation are calling on the government to reverse the funding decision "to ensure that schools receive pupil premium funding for all eligible pupils".
"In addition, both charities would like to see significant financial support for disadvantaged pupils prioritised in the education recovery plan," a statement from the charity said.
The survey also shows that despite the increased use of pupil premium funding to plug gaps, the use of evidence to inform spending decisions had risen.
Almost four-fifths – 79 per cent – of heads said they considered research evidence when deciding how to spend funding for poorer pupils, with 69 per cent citing the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.
Heads are also more likely to opt for evidence-based interventions, with nearly one in five (17 per cent) of secondary heads reporting that one-to-one and small-group tuition, which is one of the most well-evidenced approaches, is their priority for pupil premium spending this school year.
In 2020, one-to-one tuition was the fourth most popular choice. The Sutton Trust suggests that the change reflects "the increased focus on tutoring by the government and the work of the National Tutoring Programme".
For heads in primary schools, the most popular priorities for pupil premium funding are early intervention schemes, with 23 per cent choosing this approach, while 18 per cent chose to pay for more teaching assistants.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “At a time when schools are facing monumental challenges, the additional funding they get through the pupil premium has never been more important.
“So it’s concerning to see that a third of heads are using this funding to plug general budget gaps, likely because they face additional costs due to the pandemic. The priority of the education recovery plan must be to provide enough resources for disadvantaged pupils, so that they can begin to recover from the massive disruption of the last year.”
Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “It is great to see that more schools are using research evidence and the EEF Toolkit to decide how to spend their pupil premium funding. Evidence is a useful starting place for school leaders to use in conjunction with their professional judgement and knowledge of their school and its pupils.
“However, we’re worried that the change to the pupil premium reporting date could mean schools lose thousands of pounds of funding for their disadvantaged pupils because of a bureaucratic detail. This detail may seem minor, but it could have real-world implications for the support that schools are able to provide to their pupils who need it most.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Every school wants to use all its pupil premium funding to support disadvantaged children. But the reality is that many schools lack the basic level of funding they need for day-to-day running, and pupil premium money ends up having to be used for their core provision.
“This situation has worsened over the past year because of the government’s abject failure to provide sufficient financial support to schools for Covid-associated costs, such as the extensive safety measures they have had to put in place.
“Education funding is a confusing morass of various pots of money but the problem is pretty simple – there isn’t enough funding.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “That schools are being forced to use pupil premium funding to plug holes in their budgets should be of huge concern to government. It shows just how dire schools’ finances have become. A decade of austerity and underfunding has left schools with no safety net and many have found themselves unable to weather the additional costs and lost income caused by the pandemic.
"And it is those children that are most in need of help who are bearing the brunt. The government has made bold claims about their ambitions for recovery and said that no child will be left behind. But it is failing to back these words with action and is leaving schools without the funding and resources they need for the job ahead.
“Worse, by implementing the change in reporting date for pupil premium in the middle of the pandemic, they have actively removed support for children from families who have been hardest hit. A significant number of children have become eligible for help via pupil premium but they will now not receive any additional funding for another whole year.
"A recent NAHT survey showed that the amount of money lost due to this change is more than schools are being given for education recovery. The government is giving with one hand while knowingly taking away with the other. This must be put right.
"Government must come clean about how much they have saved with this change, and they must put that money back into school budgets immediately.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Pupil premium funding is expected to increase to more than £2.5 billion next year, and per-pupil rates are unchanged – so a typical school will see an increase in its pupil premium allocations this year compared to last. Any pupil who becomes eligible after the October census will attract funding in the following year.
“On top of this, we have provided a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years – the biggest uplift in a decade – and school leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £1.7 billion, towards supporting disadvantaged pupils.”