The £120 million pot of cash that the Scottish government has handed directly to heads to fund the closing of the attainment gap has led to a “catfight” over resources, MSPs have been told.
They also heard from teachers and heads that the teacher shortage was “hampering” schools’ ability to spend the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) money as they would like.
One head said that, while welcome, PEF – which gives schools an extra £1,200 for every pupil registered for free school meals – had “merely topped up resources to where they were 10 or 12 years ago”.
Last year, Tes Scotland reported that concerns were mounting that PEF money was often simply “shoring up” local budget cuts (“Headteachers ‘plug gaps’ with Pupil Equity Fund”, 27 October).
Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said at the time that PEF, which amounted to £120 million in 2017-18, was “not a cherry on the top – it’s plugging gaps”.
However, one Dundee primary says that receiving £261,000 of PEF money – roughly five times its usual devolved budget – has transformed what it can offer pupils. It now runs a breakfast-and-books club every morning before school and one-on-one supported study, and keeps its doors open every day of the summer holidays.
The comments about the PEF were made during focus groups attended by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, who sat in with headteachers, teachers, parents and pupils. The committee is seeking views on the Scottish government’s proposals to devolve more power to heads.
Pupil equity funding was distributed to schools for the first time in April last year. This week, the government announced the next round of allocations, which are based on the number of pupils a school has registered for free meals.
The Scottish government is suggesting that one way it may fund schools in the future is via an “enhanced” PEF. It believes the way schools are currently funded via local authorities is inequitable and lacks transparency, because schools with similar characteristics in different local authority areas “may attract very different levels of funding”. Last year, a Tes Scotland analysis of PEF allocations found that rural schools were more likely to miss out on poverty funding (“Funding plan flaw could amplify rural poverty”, 10 November).
The summary of one focus group held with teachers and additional support needs staff said: “One member of the group’s view was that pupil equity funding has led to a ‘catfight’ for resources, and that the third-sector support services that schools are seeking to employ do not have the capacity to meet every school’s needs. It was argued that there should be a more strategic approach, which might include putting money into other services that support areas of deprivation, and families and young people with complex needs (eg, social work).”
Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body AHDS, says that PEF money has been broadly welcomed by primary school leaders, but that there have been challenges. As a result of teacher shortages, he says, many heads are basing their PEF plans on the assumption that they will not be able to get all the teachers they need, which otherwise would be their first choice for spending the cash. However, Dempster adds that he has not heard of schools having to compete to engage third-sector organisations.
He says: “Heads very much welcome pupil equity funding because it gives them the opportunity to target need in their schools, but they haven’t got any additional management capacity to direct how they are going to use that resource. It has been an extra pressure on an already stretched group: headteachers.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman says: “Pupil equity funding is provided directly to schools for headteachers to spend at their discretion to close the poverty-related attainment gap. The national operational guidance is clear that pupil equity funding must enable schools to deliver activities, interventions or resources additional to those that were already planned.”
She adds: “We remain committed to maintaining teacher numbers nationally and we have invested £88m in 2017 to help increase teacher numbers, resulting in 543 more teachers than last year – the second year in a row that there’s been an increase.”