A Tes Scotland analysis of Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) allocations has shown that schools in rural authorities are far more likely than their urban counterparts to receive no money.
Several education bodies have called for a more sophisticated approach to PEF – which aims to help close the attainment gap between poor and affluent children – to alleviate the rural poverty that they fear often remains hidden.
The analysis shows the 113 schools that receive no money - about 5 per cent of state schools in Scotland – are overwhelmingly in rural authorities, such as Highland, Aberdeenshire and Argyll and Bute.
The tiny authority of Shetland has 11 schools with no allocation, while Scotland’s four biggest cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) have only two between them.
Similarly, small allocations of less than £6,000 – of which there are 359 across Scotland – are heavily concentrated in rural authorities, including Highland (63) and Aberdeenshire (55). The highest PEF award was £354,000 to a Glasgow secondary school.
While the figures might be partly explained by the number of small schools in such authorities – PEF allocations are determined by the number of pupils eligible for free school meals – education experts suggest that poor families in rural areas are wary of stigma and so are often less likely to claim free meals. They also point to rural poverty’s distinct features and argue that PEF’s methodology, and those of other anti-poverty initiatives, are not sophisticated enough to reflect this.
John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said: “With poverty often less concentrated in rural areas, it can be easier to miss or overlook the pupils from families who are struggling financially.”
The AHDS school leaders’ body, in its submission to the government consultation on “fair funding”, states: “The current approach to PEF funding does not properly take account of the different challenges posed by poverty in rural settings.”
AHDS general secretary Greg Dempster said that PEF was “the right way to start, but poverty manifests itself in different ways – in ways that are not picked up by how PEF is distributed”.
In remote areas, he explained, the high cost of fuel and the difficulty for teachers in accessing CPD added different dimensions to pupil poverty.
Former AHDS president Robert Hair, who has worked as a headteacher in the largely rural authority of Moray, said the difficulty of attracting teachers to remote locations and the high costs of travel – a flight to a Scottish island could cost hundreds of pounds – also put pupils at a disadvantage.
AHDS has welcomed the government’s decision to set up a Scottish Attainment Challenge group dedicated to tackling rural deprivation, but Mr Hair warned that there could be unintended consequences to distributing poverty funds in different ways.
These could “add to the bureaucracy” of an already stretched workforce, he said, while the idea of weighting allocations to benefit rural schools might inadvertently put schools in other areas at a disadvantage.
School Leaders Scotland general secretary Jim Thewliss, whose organisation represents secondaries, said the PEF approach, while not ideal, was “a way forward”. Definitions of poverty should be broadened, he said. If a child faced a 10-mile journey to school, for example, he or she might not be able to take part in after-school activities.
Euan Duncan, professional officer for the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “Compared with deprived urban areas, remote and island communities face all sorts of additional challenges including infrequent (if any) public transport, poor-quality mobile telecommunications and broadband services, reductions in banking and postal services, and challenges accessing healthcare and other basic services.”
He added: “While extra money in schools is always a good thing, I feel it might have been better shared – and impact measured – through local authorities that are better placed to take a strategic approach to poverty reduction.”
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that “the message that has come out loudest from rural parents is that directing extra funds into the schools does not really address the issues such as fuel poverty, poor transport links or higher cost of living...that all have a direct influence over attainment”.
She added that the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) was also “not a good tool in rural areas” and that “we need to find a better way to measure rural poverty”, but was encouraged that the government had recognised this.
A government spokesman said: “Pupil Equity Funding has extended the reach of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to every local authority and provides additional resource to the majority of schools in rural communities.
“We are also committed to developing national programmes to further extend the reach of the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This includes looking at the impact of rural deprivation on attainment.”