Investigation: 'Come clean' on funding gap, DfE told

Tes obtains councils' first details of missing pupil premium millions. But government still hasn't said how much poorest pupils will lose

Amy Gibbons

Pupil premium funding: Stop the school funding 'moans', says education secretary Gavin Williamson

The government has been condemned for its secrecy over the size of a multi-million pound funding hole left by a "spectacularly bad" policy hitting the country's poorest pupils.

The head of the UK's largest teaching union has called on the Department for Education (DfE) to "come clean" about how much money it will save by changing the way pupil premium funding is allocated this year.

Meanwhile, a Tes investigation has begun to reveal how much each area stands to lose from the policy shift, with two councils estimating funding gaps of more than £800,000.

Revealed: Primaries' catch-up cash 'wiped out' by funding shift

Exclusive: Hit on pupil premium 'offsets' catch-up cash

Background: Teachers 'sickened' as DfE delays cash for poor pupils

But despite repeated questioning from Tes, the DfE is refusing to release data quantifying the impact on school budgets as a whole.

Pressure is growing on the government to change tack. This week, England's new children's commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, indicated she thought the policy was wrong.

Announced quietly before Christmas, the change means 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.

Children who became eligible for free school meals between October and January will therefore not attract pupil premium money in school budgets allocated from April this year.

Initial responses to a Tes survey have revealed that some local authorities estimate they will lose out on hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of the policy shift.

19 local authorities missing £10m for poor pupils 

Asked if they were able to quantify the impact of the change on their education budgets, 14 councils provided Tes with figures – some of which were approximations – showing they were set to lose a combined total of more than £6 million.

These figures come on top of those from a group of five local authorities across London, which had already estimated a total shortfall of more than £3.5 million as a result of the change.

North Yorkshire County Council said it was set to lose an estimated £862,000, based on an increase of 687 pupils eligible for free school meals between the October and January census dates.

Wakefield Council also estimated that it was on track to lose at least £800,000, based on 636 pupils becoming eligible for free schools meals during the relevant time frame.

And Islington Council told Tes that "pegging the pupil premium calculations to outdated information" means its schools will miss out on more than £487,000.

Timing of DfE change 'spectacularly bad'

Michelline Ngongo, Islington Council's executive member for children, young people and families, said: "This extra pressure, in the middle of a pandemic, stretches very limited funds even further, and is spectacularly bad timing as we work with schools to ensure that every pupil can be fully focused on catching up in the classroom and achieving their true potential."

Last month, schools minister Nick Gibb was questioned by Labour MP Ian Mearns on the pupil premium policy shift at a meeting of the Education Select Committee.

The minister was then told by chair Robert Halfon to write to the committee clarifying the amount of money the DfE would save as a result of the change.

However, five weeks later, the committee is still yet to receive the evidence, with Mr Mearns calling for the question to be "chased up".

Tes has been informed that Mr Gibb has written a letter to the committee on the subject. But last night it had still not been received. 

Government should 'come clean' says NEU

The DfE was also asked by Tes to provide figures for:

  • The number of children eligible for pupil premium funding in October 2020 (and the total funding available to them).
  • The number of children eligible for pupil premium funding in January 2021 (and the total funding that would have been available to them, had this year's calculations been based on January's census).

The DfE said the requested information was dependent on census data – and that figures for January 2021 would be publicly available in June.

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said that the government must know already how much it was set to save from the change and should "come clean" now.

"The DfE must have the data to answer the essential question of how many children, who should attract pupil premium, were not being counted because of a change in the census date," she said. 

"The loss of the pupil premium in many schools will far outweigh any extra funding that schools have received for Covid recovery – which is a nonsense."

Heads say funding gap will be 'substantial'

Julia Harnden, funding specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said she expected the DfE was "reluctant" to provide figures showing the number of children affected by the change because it will be "substantial".

"The timing of the government’s administrative change to pupil premium funding is extremely unfortunate, to say the least, and is going to have a severe impact on schools," she said.

"The logic behind bringing the pupil premium into line with most other school funding is good but the decision to proceed with it during the most disruptive period education has seen for more than 75 years is difficult to fathom."

She added: "Funding, or more precisely the lack of it, is a distraction that schools do not need as they seek to reset the education agenda after an unprecedented year of disruption.

"Waiting a further 12 months to access the pupil premium for even a small percentage of their pupils will hit them hard and leave them out of pocket at a critical time.

"The government needs to address this issue now and provide funding to cover the increase in eligible pupils between October and January."

'No surprise' over DfE lack of transparency

Speaking to Tes about Mr Gibb's failure to answer his question, Mr Mearns said the lack of transparency over the net change in pupils eligible for the funding didn't "surprise" him.

"They probably won't publish that data until June, which is far too late for the calculations going into the new financial year," he said.

"The thing is, is it really going to take them five months to process the data from the January census? I wouldn't have thought so.

"I mean, if they did a concentrated effort on the data, simply on free school meal entitlement, I'm sure they could process that much more quickly than that, if there was a will to do so. But it's the lack of the will which I'm concerned about."

Mr Mearns, who is also chair of governors at a primary school in his constituency of Gateshead, added: "We've seen our free school meals entitlements go up significantly. I think in our school budget alone, it'll run to tens of thousands."

Asked if he therefore thought the government should base this year's calculations on the January census data, Mr Mearns said: "I don't really see that there's any reason why they couldn't have done that.

Could ministers change their minds on pupil premium?

"I think it's more difficult for them now, given the fact we're in the middle of March.

"But having said that, the government have changed their minds on things like free school meals during holiday periods in the past, so why couldn't they change their mind on this, and give the schools with the pupils with the greatest levels of need...the money which they really actually will need in order to help those youngsters...settle back into a sort of steady learning programme, but also to do that catch-up?"

Jules White, headteacher and leader of the WorthLess? campaign, said: "School budgets have been stretched yet again by Covid 19. We know, too, that disadvantaged students have been worst hit by the pandemic.

"It's concerning and frustrating, therefore, that the DfE will not present clear-cut data on how the recent census change is detrimentally affecting school finances and support for children from the poorest families.

Schools want shortfalls made up

"First of all, we need transparency and then we need the DfE to ensure that shortfalls are made up, and children facing the toughest circumstances are not short-changed. Other new funding streams must boost support in real terms rather than cover off for newly created reductions."

Meanwhile children's commissioner Dame Rachel said she thought the number of children eligible for free school meals should be counted twice in a year, rather than once, to reduce the amount of time pupils lose out when their family circumstances change.

"I think that could be very sensible," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. 

She said: "We just need to take a sensible approach here. And particularly in the current circumstances, we need to recognise the particular and special needs of this post-pandemic situation."

A DfE spokesperson said: "We moved to using the October census to calculate pupil premium allocation so that schools know their budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead. We expect pupil premium funding to increase to more than £2.5 billion in 2021-22, reflecting an increase in the number of eligible pupils.

"We are taking steps to make sure every pupil gets an excellent education, no matter their background. That's why we continue to allocate pupil premium funding to schools at unchanged per-pupil rates, in addition to the significant new catch-up and recovery funding we have introduced, which is targeted towards schools most in need to support disadvantaged students' attainment."

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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