Poorest North West students face £14 million hole in school funding

  • Article and research by Granada Reports Apprentice Journalist Ajai Singh

Schools in the North West are facing a shortfall of at least £14.5 million in Pupil Premium funding, it has been revealed.

Responses to Freedom of Information Requests from 17 local authorities in the North West showed that more than 20,000 pupils will be affected by the cuts. 

Pupil Premium is designed to support disadvantaged students, including those on free school meals and students who are in care.

It is used by schools to close the gap between these students and their peers by funding extra staff, resources, technology and enrichment activities.

Schools receive their allocation based on the number of students eligible that year.

But, now the Government decided to use eligibility data from a census collected in October 2020 rather than the more recent data collected in January 2021 - despite January being the month the Government has used in previous years.

Consequently, children who were newly eligible between October 2020 and January 2021 will have to wait another year before their funding comes through.

The change has not been welcomed by headteachers, who say that after nearly two years of Covid tearing through health and the economy, and students losing a third of their learning time during the pandemic, has already hit schools hard. 

The Labour Party has estimated that more than 20,000 pupils in the North West could be affected.

Manchester’s schools are hardest hit, facing a shortfall of more than £2.4 million - with more than 1,900 students missing out.

Schools in Liverpool are facing a shortfall of nearly £1.5 million. 

For Glyn Potts, Headteacher at Blessed John Henry Newman RC College in Oldham - an area which is facing a shortfall of nearly £1.3 million affecting over 1,000 students - dealing with tighter budgets is a daily occurrence for his staff.

More than 40% of his 1,500 students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school has some of the highest levels of students with special educational needs and children in care in the town. 

During the Covid lockdowns, many more of his families were pushed below the poverty line - with period poverty being a particular issue. 

At Newman, Glyn estimates that £65,000 of Pupil Premium is missing from his budget.

Moreover, issues with the school funding formula could leave him with another £220,000 hole in his budget - which he said could lead him to face “horrific” decisions.

He compares it to being on the Titanic. 

Another issue that disadvantaged students confronted during Covid was digital exclusion.

Schools often spend some of their Pupil Premium funding on technology for students who do not have access. 

Diane Modahl, former Olympian and Chair of Greater Manchester’s Young Persons’ Task Force, which led the efforts to provide technology during the first lockdown, explains that as many as 1.2 million people in our region are digitally excluded. 

For young people, digital exclusion affected them in multiple ways, including experiencing feelings of isolation. 

The Sutton Trust, which supports disadvantaged students, found in January 2021 (nearly a year after the lockdowns began) that more than a third of teachers in the most deprived areas reported that around 20% of their students lacked devices.

Nearly 70% of school leaders in state schools had to source their own IT equipment while waiting for government support. 

Whilst there was a response in Greater Manchester, Modahl admits that the scale of digital exclusion for disadvantaged children is stark - at least 35,000 pupils are affected. 

For Glyn, some of his students confided in his staff about the day to day challenges of not having a device to work from - with many of them having to use their parents’ phones before work and using public WiFi at the height of the pandemic.

Former shadow Education Secretary (who was still in the shadow cabinet at the time of speaking) and North West MP Kate Green has promised to bridge the digital divide - comparing access to technology in schools as essential as having a pen. 

She said: “Every school and college has to be fully resourced to give every child all the opportunities for full digital learning because that’s the way of the future.”

The Department for Education responded: “We recently announced we would be providing £126 million for an additional 500,000 devices for disadvantaged pupils. 

“The scheme builds on the successful delivery of 1.3 million laptops to support remote learning and access to essential social care services during the pandemic.

“The department is also making £13 million available to schools and colleges that need to buy IT support to set up the devices. The funding also covers the costs of resetting and reconfiguring devices previously received via Get Help With Technology, which will allow schools to make full use of them in the long-term.”

As poorer families begin to emerge from the challenges that Covid has wrought, they are facing a new set of circumstances that Cheshire MP Mike Amesbury calls a “toxic mix” of Universal Credit cuts, rising energy bills and the rises to national insurance. 

The Social Metrics Commission has found that nearly two-thirds of people in the deepest forms of poverty have experienced a negative employment change during the crisis; either through losing their job, becoming furloughed or experiencing a change in hours or earnings. 

Amesbury’s local authority, Cheshire West and Chester, faces a Pupil Premium shortfall of nearly £540,000 - affecting hundreds of students. 

Whilst these challenges affect poorer families on a day to day basis, Amesbury thinks the shortfalls in Pupil Premium could affect life chances.

He said: “I see it in my caseload, there’s considerable pressure around mental health services, particularly around young people. That provision will be cut. 

“(Pupil Premium) could be around support for career aspirations. That will be cut. 

“It could be the niceties such as school trips and extra curricular clubs. That will be cut. 

“It’s just not acceptable.”

With the average price of a secondary school uniform often costing families over £300 due to significant branding and often only single suppliers being available, Amesbury was successful in passing a law to make them more affordable by making supplier arrangements more competitive as well as minimal branding on uniforms. 

Kate Green MP has branded the Pupil Premium shortfall as “depriving schools” of funding. 

Trafford Council, which falls into her constituency of Stretford and Urmston, has a shortfall of just over £500,000. 

Whilst Green believes that Pupil Premium - a Liberal Democrat Policy that was implemented during the Coalition years - is a good policy, she believes it needs to go further. 

In their £15 billion Children’s Recovery Plan, Labour promised to double the Pupil Premium in the early years to £110 million; put £142 million of funding into Further Education; give a one off payment of £133 million to schools to account for the loss of funding due to the census change.

However, the Department for Education said: “We have also committed to an ambitious education recovery plan, including announcing investment of over £3bn and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.

“Wider support for disadvantaged pupils are available through: Breakfast clubs, which have been extended to 2023. Our new contract, worth up to £24 million, will follow the current programme which has supported up to 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas across England.

“Our expanded Holiday Activities and Food programme is providing thousands of disadvantaged pupils with enriching activities and nutritious food as it did at Easter. Backed by £220 million, the scheme now runs in every council in the country.”

  • Analysis from Granada Reports Apprentice Journalist Ajai Singh

There is much debate in the education sector about how to effectively invest Pupil Premium.

Headteachers will look at educational research to decide on the most effective programmes and measure progress periodically; policy makers look at how it can be refined; the government allocates funding through the Department for Education and OFSTED inspects schools on how effectively Pupil Premium raises attainment. 

Whilst an array of ‘Catch Up’ policies have been published, a policy from the Children’s Commissioner links the policy to inflation to ensure that “its real value is not eroded”. Hence, the policy is less likely to change by a “sleight of hand”, as Mike Amesbury MP described it. 

I put this to Kate Green who was open to such a recommendation. 

She said: “There can be risks to linking Pupil Premium to inflation because children’s needs don’t always change in line with wider economic drivers of inflation.

“But it’s an interesting policy that I would be happy to look at.”

As the government promotes work as a route out of poverty, Pupil Premium can be part of a route for social mobility. 

Ben Jones, a Bolton teacher and Sutton Trust volunteer, said in the years since he attended a Sutton Trust programme, many of the issues that disadvantaged students faced have not changed. He explained how as students go through the school system, home issues begin to have a deeper impact on learning. 

Moreover, the Pupil Premium provides access to opportunities that many take for granted: such as going to the beach or a museum. 

The Department for Education responded: “Pupil premium funding has risen for the majority of schools, to more than £2.5 billion overall this year – an increase of £60 million compared to last year.

“Combined with our ambitious education recovery plan, this will ensure disadvantaged children are supported with their attainment.

“Using the October census for pupil premium allocations means schools will now know their full budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead. Any pupil who became eligible after the October census will attract funding in the following year.”

However, the government has published details revealing that the national shortfall to the census date change is nearly £90 million. 

Whilst the reasoning for the change is to provide schools with more clarity, Ben disagrees. 

He said: “It doesn’t provide certainty- if anything it’s going to make it harder for us to plan how to support students.”

A graduate of Oxford University, he spoke openly about how opportunities afforded to him at school equipped him to navigate its halls by boosting his confidence- deeming his time at Oxford as a “life affirming experience.”

Many of Ben’s peers on the Sutton Trust’s programmes have pursued careers in law, finance, banking and consulting. 

He continued: “A lot are interested in working in education because when you have had that experience of mobility through your education, you want to give something back.”

What is certain is that the Pupil Premium, when invested correctly, can have a transformative effect for individuals’ social mobility. 

For example, Glyn explained how Pupil Premium funding helped steer a student away from criminality and being NEET, (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and led another to the colleges of Cambridge University.

Glyn continued: “If you’re going to interview one of my children for a post in a college or for a job, I want them to wow you with their broader elements because we believe that children should live life to the full.”

The Government has often been criticised for not explaining what “levelling up” entails.

Arguably, understanding how decisions made in Whitehall can affect Wythenshawe or Wallasey or Warrington forms a key part of that policy.

I asked the Department for Education whether it had a regional breakdown of the impact of the decision to change the census date. 

It did not have that data.