New figures reveal that the Scottish government’s flagship policy to drive up the attainment of disadvantaged pupils continues to be blighted by a large underspend.
It was revealed last year that, in its first year, the £120 million Pupil Equity Fund – which gives funding directly to schools to run projects mitigating against the impact of poverty – was underspent by 40 per cent, meaning that £47.9 million was carried forward into the current financial year.
Now figures compiled by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (Spice) – which provides impartial research and information services to the Parliament – show that last year the two other main strands of the Scottish Attainment Challenge also saw a significant underspend, with "challenge authorities" and a schools programme also failing to spend their allocations.
The Scottish government, however, disputes the figures.
In 2017-18, according to Spice, the challenge authorities – nine council areas with the highest levels of deprivation – and the schools programme, which targets 74 primary and secondary schools serving deprived areas, were allocated £50 million, but failed to spend 18 per cent of the total, or £8.9 million.
The result is that overall a third of the cash earmarked for the three main attainment challenge programmes, approximately £56.8 million, was not spent in 2017-18, according to Spice.
However, the Scottish government told Tes Scotland that Spice had got its figures wrong and that the schools programme and the challenge authorities strands were actually underspent by 10 per cent last year, or £4.6 million.
Even taking that into account, however, the overall result is still an underspend of roughly a third, or £52.5 million.
A Scottish government spokesman said: "The funding allocated to the Challenge Authorities and Schools Programme in 2017-18 was £45.7m, of which authorities spent £41.1m. This makes an underspend of 10 per cent."
The Spice figures came to light during this week's meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.
The Scottish Conservative MSP Oliver Mundell asked education secretary John Swinney – who was giving evidence on the government's 2019-20 draft budget – if the “fairly significant underspend” could lead to money being found for the 4 per cent of schools who may be “facing serious challenges” but had yet to receive support.
Small rural schools, in particular, are believed to be missing out on attainment challenge cash because of the way the money is allocated.
However, Mr Swinney – while acknowledging that the way the cash was allocated needed to improve and saying work was underway to address this – said that the resources were spoken for.
He added: “The fact they have not been spent does not mean the commitment to those schools evaporates, that remains in place. We would need to find additional resources to supplement the programme if that was what we were going to do.”
Mr Swinney said the underspend had come about because “it takes a while to get funding out the door when a programme starts” but he said that he expected the underspend to continue to reduce. The government had said it would spend £750 million on the programme and that was what it would do, he concluded.
However, an evaluation of the first two years of the Attainment Scotland Fund (2015-17) published last year also found that the teacher shortage was contributing to the underspend.
The report said: “A significant challenge for local authorities and schools was around the recruitment of staff. This put extra pressure on schools and impacted negatively on the success of planned interventions, leading to frustration and underspend.”