Once again, just as teachers and school leaders try to enjoy a break from the neverending challenges of school life this Easter, the Department for Education has chosen a last-minute spanner to throw in the works.
This time it’s changes to the pupil premium funding and reporting requirements – presumably sneaked out in the run-up to the bank holiday weekend because there’s enough bad publicity around about the funding as it is, so why not sneak out more bad news alongside it?
There’s no escaping the fact that carefully calculated changes to the funding arrangements – again, quietly notified to schools without fanfare – will have a significant impact on school funding for huge numbers of pupils newly eligible for the support. My own school has seen a 60 per cent increase in pupils eligible for free meals since the start of the pandemic, and I’m sure it’s not an exceptional case.
Pupil premium funding: Families facing destitution
For those schools with particularly big increases at the end of 2020, the change will be significant. It’s worth remembering that this includes the period of the second lockdown, the planned expiry of furlough arrangements and the lead-up to Brexit. Is it any wonder that more families found themselves tipped from just about managing to struggling to cope?
It’s tempting to imagine that these children have become newly disadvantaged, but the likelihood is that many of these families have always struggled to afford all their needs. They’re often the families that schools have already been supporting with food parcels, additional in-school support and signposting to agencies to help them keep a roof over their heads.
The threshold of moving on to free school meals isn’t an indication of a slight hiccup with finances; it’s desperation point.
So if schools were already supporting them, then the fact that pupil premium increases aren’t keeping up won’t be a problem, right? Except that, for every one of those families now facing destitution without state support, there’s another family – or two, or three – who have found themselves with reduced income, whether through furlough, unemployment or having to take on lower-paid work.
Many won’t be so badly off that they become eligible for free meals, but will nevertheless struggle now to clothe and feed their children, let alone fund extracurricular activities or visits.
Schools as the supporters of families in crisis
Once again, schools become the supporters of those families in crisis, in difficult situations or just in unexpected circumstances. But just as the needs rise significantly, the government has found a way of ensuring that the funding doesn’t keep up with the growing need – potentially to a detriment of over £100 million.
So, what additional support can the DfE offer schools as they try to plan their budgets and offer the best support they can for their pupils? A new requirement to demonstrate the evidence used to justify your spending, and a new statutory template for reporting on it.
Apparently, the main purpose of the form is to inform parents and governors of how we’re using the money. Why we need someone else to dictate the template for that isn’t clear, particularly when the template is so difficult to understand. In fact, I’m fairly certain that there’s a duplicated section in the primary template – but it’s so badly designed that I can’t be sure that it’s not just a dreadful layout.
Oh, and there’s nowhere clear on the form to set out the evidence underpinning your decisions, despite the fact that this is to be required from this year. Indeed, the model report provided makes no attempt to link their actions to any evidence at all.
It’s almost as though they haven’t really thought this through. Again.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979