There are concerns that the money is not being distributed effectively
Around two million (29 per cent) of the seven million children aged between four and 16 who attend publicly-funded schools in England come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
These pupils tend to perform worse in exams than their better-off peers, which is known as the attainment gap. This can perpetuate a chain of poverty passed down through generations, since poor academic achievement is associated with higher unemployment and lower wages in adulthood.
One way that the government has attempted to reduce this inequality is through the Pupil Premium, additional funding provided to schools to support their disadvantaged pupils (those who qualify for free school meals).
But the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has today warned that the school funding formula is preventing the Pupil Premium from being used effectively, meaning many pupils are missing out on the opportunities it should be giving them.
The PAC found that there is wide and unexplained variation in the funding given to schools, even those dealing with similar levels of disadvantage. Some schools were being given as much as £3,000 more per disadvantaged pupil.
With more austerity to come, the Education Department will need to reform the funding formula to ensure that the Pupil Premium can continue to be justified.
Figures show that when properly implemented, the Pupil Premium can be effective. It was announced by the coalition government in 2011, and between 2011-12 and the end of 2014-15, the Department of Education had distributed about £6.0 billion of Pupil Premium funding to schools.
The PAC says that since 2011 the attainment gap has closed overall by 4.7 percentage points in primary schools and by 1.6 percentage points in secondary schools.
But progress is uneven across the country, with the PAC warning that there is little understanding of why there is such variation in how disadvantaged pupils perform.
Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said:
“Urgent steps must be taken to establish benchmarks for effectiveness and ensure best practice – where evidence shows Pupil Premium spending and implementation is working – is followed across the sector.”
The Committee also expressed concern about the possible detrimental impact of Universal Credit (UC) on the effectiveness of the Pupil Premium. Because UC will see five benefits combined into one, it will change the current basis for determining free school meals and therefore change Pupil Premium eligibility.
The Department of Education has yet to decide how it will identify disadvantaged children once UC is rolled out. The Committee warns that there are already problems with under-claiming:
“In 2013, in some areas more than 30 per cent of eligible pupils did not take up their free school meals entitlement compared to 0 per cent in other areas.”
There are concerns that UC will only add to this confusion and mean that more allocated funds do not reach their intended recipients.
“Without progress on these points, the Public Accounts Committee does not believe disadvantaged pupils across the country can receive full value from Pupil Premium investment.
“That could mean many children it is designed to help will miss out on potentially life-changing benefits at a crucial stage in their development.”
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.