Millions in funding for pupils in care goes unspent

1st July 2016 at 00:00
Money allocated to boosting the educational chances of looked-after children is clawed back by government

Councils failed to spend up to a third of the pupil premium funding aimed at improving the educational outcomes of looked-after children, TES can reveal.

An investigation has revealed that more than £2.5 million of pupil premium plus money was clawed back by central government last year after it was not spent by local authorities. The unspent amount is equal to the pupil premium funding for nearly 1,500 looked-after children. Forty-one of England’s 150 local authorities did not spend all the money they were given in 2014-15 and nine returned between 20 per cent and 33 per cent of it.

Adoption UK chief executive Hugh Thornbery said: “The educational disadvantages faced by looked-after and adopted children are so large that it’s essential the money allocated through pupil premium to local authorities is fully utilised.”

Pupil premium plus raised the funding for looked-after children to £1,900 per pupil from April 2014, and extended the cash to cover all children adopted from care or leaving care via a special guardianship order.

Announcing the extra funding in October 2013, children’s minister Edward Timpson said: “It’s vital that these vulnerable children are given the support they need and the education they deserve to help them get on in life.”

Children who are in care, or have been in care, are among the lowest-performing groups in educational terms. Fewer than half achieve expected levels by in key stage 2 national tests, compared with 79 per cent of all children. By GCSE stage, the gap widens: 31 per cent of looked-after children gained five A* to C grades in 2014, compared with 75 per cent nationally.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Sutton Trust’s Education Endowment Foundation, said that the effective use of pupil premium funding was a “key means” to address the difference in attainment. “It is seriously concerning to hear that some of this funding is not being utilised and spent how it was intended – on improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils,” he said.

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s essential that the money gets through either to the schools or to a programme that is designed to ensure that the youngsters are getting all the support that’s required.”

Budgeting difficulties

Unlike other pupil premium funding, pupil premium plus is overseen by virtual school heads (see box, right) at local authorities and cannot be rolled over to the next financial year. Several councils said this made it difficult to budget effectively, especially as the number of eligible children can change throughout the year.

Gateshead returned £202,250 last year – a third of its allocation, equal to the funding for 106 pupils. A spokesman for the authority said that the Department for Education allocated the money based on 322 children being eligible, but Gateshead’s annual return showed that only 241 children were in care.

“Unfortunately, they provided no lists to allow us to account for their extra 81 children,” he said. “The difference in funding relates to looked-after children, which the DfE said we had but who we had no means of identifying.”

Croydon returned £248,379, nearly a quarter of its pupil premium plus funding. A spokesman for the council said that there were peaks and troughs in demand throughout the year, and DfE money was sometimes received too late in the year to spend.

“There are discussions happening with the DfE to see if virtual heads can get the same power as other headteachers to roll this funding over to the next financial year,” he said. This change would be supported by the National Association of Virtual School Heads.

Jonathan Clifton, associate director for public services at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: “It’s astonishing that some local authorities aren’t finding a way to spend this money on looked-after children, which means there are pupils out there who aren’t receiving support to which they’re entitled.”

The underspends for each council were obtained by TES via a freedom of information request and compared with DfE statistics on last year’s pupil premium allocations.

The 2015-16 underspends were unavailable at the time of writing.

The Local Government Association said that it could not comment on the findings, because the reasons for underspends varied.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We expect virtual school heads to work in partnership with schools to ensure this funding is allocated and used effectively to meet children’s needs.

“Virtual school heads are held to account by Ofsted who monitor all aspects of the education of looked after children, including how this funding is used.”

What’s a virtual school head?

The role of the virtual school head was introduced to ensure that there would be someone in every local authority responsible for the results of children in care, as well as managing their pupil premium funding.

A new National Association of Virtual School Heads, which launched this week, is lobbying for councils to be allowed to carry pupil premium money forward to the next financial year to prevent underspends.

The association’s vice chair, Jane Pickthall, said: “We need to hold some of the funding back because we don’t know who’s going to come into care and what levels of support they are going to need, and whether there’s going to be a crisis occurring. Because we can’t carry any of it forward, that can make it difficult.”

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