Schools in Wales will be forced to show how they are spending a fund earmarked for their poorest students, amid fears that the cash is being wasted on tablet computers and teaching assistants that have little impact on raising attainment.
The Welsh government is drawing up strict guidance on how it wants its #163;97 million pupil deprivation grant - the equivalent of the pupil premium in England - to be allocated. It will demand that schools account for their spending by publishing an online breakdown, as part of a push for greater transparency.
The deprivation grant was agreed in a deal between the Labour government in Cardiff Bay and the opposition Liberal Democrats last year. A total of #163;32.4 million a year was earmarked to be distributed to the most deprived students in Wales between 2012 and 2015. It works out at an extra #163;450 for each student eligible for free school meals, compared with #163;600 in England.
Until now, schools have been given flexibility on how to spend the cash, which they receive directly, with the particular aim of supporting literacy and numeracy. They are also encouraged to track the progress of particular students, and to work with parents and community groups to improve outcomes.
But a government source told TES that some schools were absorbing the funding into their main budgets, while others were "wasting" money on new classroom technology, including laptop and tablet computers, and low-cost staffing such as extra classroom assistants.
The concerns follow a report from Ofsted last month, which said that while schools were making better use of pupil premium money than they were last year, too many were still failing to properly track expenditure.
The Welsh government is keen to avoid a repeat of the issues that plagued Raise, its previous initiative to help children living in poverty. Between 2006 and 2009, the #163;40 million programme targeted about 20,000 children, but an evaluation found that many schools chose to target underachievement rather than disadvantage.
Professor David Egan, a former government education adviser who now works with deprived schools in the South Wales valleys, said schools wanted to make the best use of the grant but were not always clear on how it should be spent.
"There's a feeling that schools aren't entirely sure how to use the funding properly and the concern is it's not being well targeted," he said. "The best use is being made where schools take a long-term strategic view rather than trying individual short-term strategies.
"In future they will have to justify much more carefully how their spending decisions will contribute to the educational chances of their most deprived pupils."
Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said that despite the accusations he had seen no evidence that heads were wasting the money. "What some people see as misuse of funds might not be seen as such by the school," he said. "It's often very difficult to judge from outside."
Mr Jones warned that the new guidance could cause the majority to be penalised because of the actions of the minority. "The auditing process has already been considerably tightened, and there is also a danger that grant schemes can be tied up in so much red tape that we spend more time on that than we do addressing the problems," he said.
A Welsh government spokesman said that while the deprivation grant was flexible, schools must provide evidence of a clear focus on student outcomes and demonstrate how they are using the money to close the attainment gap between poor and more affluent students. "We expect schools to focus on actions that will bring about long-term, sustainable improvements that last beyond the lifetime of the grant," he said.
"Schools are required to publish their spending plans online, with details of how they have used the grant, the grant spend and its impact, demonstrating that they have addressed the specific focus of the funding. This is to ensure that schools are accountable to parents and the wider community and that they have addressed the specific focus of the funding."
The #163;32.4 million-a-year pupil deprivation grant aims to reduce the impact of poverty on educational attainment in Wales.
All the funding goes directly to school budgets.
Each school receives an allocation according to the number of students aged 5-15 who are eligible for free school meals.
This equates to an additional #163;450 per eligible student.
Schools have flexibility on how to spend the money but are encouraged to focus on literacy and numeracy.