The government has used an accounting trick for a stealth cut to school funding

Jack Abbott
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Amid an endless stream of stories around Conservative cronyism and a dodgy Downing Street refurb, a stealth cut to school funding went largely unnoticed in the lead up to the local elections. A fortnight on from polling day, there is now, belatedly, increasing awareness of an issue that undermines any warm words the government may offer on ‘levelling up’ or ‘education recovery’.

At the end of last year, the government retrospectively shifted the eligibility deadline for the pupil premium – the money schools receive to help provide support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – from its usual January date back to October. This is more than a simple administrative date change.

The government’s decision to base pupil premium funding on the number of free school meal pupils in October 2020, rather than January 2021, will mean that pupils who became eligible between these months will not be counted for additional support. Schools would usually receive a funding boost of £1,345 for every primary-age pupil and £955 for every secondary-age pupil, but they are now set to miss out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.

Let’s bear in mind when this accounting trick was performed. December, the same month that Gavin Williamson threatened to sue schools if they did not reopen, the same month when he suddenly decreed that within a few short weeks schools would be expected to conduct a mass testing regime themselves. In January, the government forced three million children into school for one day after the Christmas holidays, before promptly U-turning.

It was against this backdrop of government-induced chaos, after nearly a year of unprecedented and unrelenting pressure on schools, that the Education Secretary believed it was appropriate and reasonable to essentially withdraw this desperately needed funding.

The government is refusing to reveal the estimated impact of their retrospective pupil premium deadline shift because to do so could “harm” its “reputation”. However, despite the government’s pitiful stance, education campaigner, Andy Jolley, Labour’s Wes Streeting and the Local Government Association (LGA) have been painstakingly piecing together the full picture, with FOIs and surveys uncovering the scale of the hit.

The numbers are stark. Schools in Greater Manchester will miss out on £8.8m. Kent’s schools will no longer receive £4m in additional funding, Birmingham will be short-changed to the tune of £3.8m and Northumberland, which saw the highest percentage increase of eligible pupils in the country, will have £2.5m less. The cost to schools in my home county of Suffolk will be over £1.1m.

Surveys undertaken by the LGA suggest that £118m of funding could be at risk, with the deputy leader of the LGA Labour group, councillor Michael Payne, making the point on BBC Radio 4 that the government can hardly ‘level up’ by making stealth cuts to school budgets. Others, like Andy Jolley, estimate that the overall impact of the deadline change could even amount to more than £150m. That is before you account for the fact that the ‘catch-up premium’ funding also uses the new October 2020 deadline, therefore removing eligibility again from the very same children. In short, it is a double funding hit.

Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, has absurdly claimed that the move had been made to “give schools more certainty”. She also said that it “won’t actually make a huge difference”, which, given the figures cited above, is patently untrue. The real short-term motive is clear: with more families falling below the breadline, the government is looking to reduce the costs of pupil premium, which inflated rapidly over the autumn. While the government will pay out more overall in pupil premium this year as a result of rising poverty, retrospectively shifting the eligibility deadline from January to October could save them well over £100m.

Their long-term plan could be of even greater concern. Under the current Ever 6 model, each newly eligible pupil on free school meals will cost the government over £8,000 in pupil premium. Jolley believes that, with child poverty rates escalating, the Conservatives do not see this as sustainable, with the pupil premium date change acting as the first step in looking to abandon the policy entirely.

Education has been treated as an afterthought by the Conservatives for some time, but the pandemic has brought two things sharply into focus. The first is that teachers continue to go above and beyond in their dedication to their schools and pupils, working long and demanding hours, covering a multitude of roles and responsibilities, and stretching every pound coin further and further to deliver more and more. The second is that the Conservatives have neither the talent nor the desire to support schools and families even remotely adequately – if they did, Gavin Williamson would not be in a job.

The A-Levels debacle and the back to school mayhem in January are obvious examples of their gross incompetence over the past year. But the wearing effect of last minute, contradictory and lightweight dictats from the government – in addition to long and drawn out struggles to secure the most basic support, like laptops for children from disadvantaged backgrounds – have already eroded confidence and energy levels. This pupil premium change, though seemingly subtle in nature, has serious consequences for future funding and only adds to the severe challenges that schools are facing.

Boris Johnson wants to talk about his ‘levelling up’ agenda rather than which donor originally funded his expensive Downing Street refit. Fine. Perhaps, then, he would like to answer why – after an unprecedented and potentially life-changing disruption to children’s learning, a decade of real-term school funding cuts and increasing child poverty – is he removing tens of millions of pounds of future funding away from schools? Johnson does not want to answer questions about his soft furnishings, and you can be sure he won’t want to come clean on his school funding stealth cut either.

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