Free school meals: Poorer pupils miss out in funding change, say unions
A "worrying" number of poorer school pupils will miss out on extra funding because of a change in the way support is allocated, unions say.
New figures show more than one in five children in England are now eligible for free school meals - an increase of 420,000 children since March 2020.
But extra funding for schools will be based on data from last October rather than the latest figures for January.
The government says the date change will help with budget planning.
The issue of child poverty during the pandemic has been highlighted by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully campaigned for the government to allow about 1.3 million children in England to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays.
The January figures show 20.8% of pupils in England now qualify for free school meals, up from 17.3% in January 2020.
It means a total of 1.74 million children are eligible for the support.
Children are entitled to free school meals if a parent or carer receives one of a number of benefits.
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Pupil premium funding for schools is based partly on the number of children who are currently, or have been in the last six years, eligible for free school meals.
It is targeted to help disadvantaged children and provides schools with an extra £1,345 per pupil in primary and £955 per pupil in secondary settings.
In every previous year this has been based on a snapshot of data taken in January each year, but for the first time the figures from the autumn census of schools carried out in October are being used.
Schools argue this means their funding for the most disadvantaged children is not keeping up with the number of families falling into financial difficulty during the pandemic.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "As we expected, there has been a big rise in the number of children eligible for pupil premium this year - and a worrying number of them will not be receiving any additional funding due to a change in reporting date implemented by the government."
He accused the government of "abandoning those children most in need" in the middle of a pandemic.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it had "short-changed schools".
He said the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by 100,000 between October 2020 and January this year, suggesting "a very large funding hole".
"Whatever the motivation for this change in the rules the result is nothing short of shameful," he added.
A Department for Education spokesperson said pupil premium funding was expected to increase to more than £2.5bn this year and a typical school would see its allocations increase compared with last year.
"Any pupil who becomes eligible after the October census will attract funding in the following year," the spokesperson added.
The department says using data from October will allow schools to know their budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead.
'Children getting poorer in front of our eyes'
Wayne Norrie is chief executive officer of Greenwood Academies Trust, which runs a large family of 37 schools in the East Midlands and East of England. The majority of its children come from economically disadvantaged families, with almost 50% eligible for free school meals.
He says that over the past three years he has noticed "the children getting poorer in front of our eyes", with families more dependent on the school for help with food.
Mr Norrie says he is increasingly worried about the impact the pandemic has had on his pupils' language and basic skills.
"We have some older children who are seven years old in our multi-academy trust who staff are working with to re-toilet train because they have lost the ability through lockdown to use a toilet properly," he says.
He adds that pupils' stamina and concentration levels have also been impacted by not being in school.
Based on its calculations, Mr Norrie says he is £400,000 down in his budget this year due to the time lag in receiving the pupil premium money for poorer children.
Pupil premium funding is not just there for pupil attainment but is used for "the well-being of our children, the mental health of our children, the stability," he says. "Looking at their basic needs, that make them happy, fed and warm."
IMAGE COPYRIGHTBBC NEWS
image captionSchools in the Greenwood Academies Trust have lost out on £400,000 this year, Wayne Norrie says
Tracy Mayes, who has a child who receives free school meals at Studfall Junior Academy in Corby, Northamptonshire, also gets extra support from the school through food parcels delivered to her home.
She said the parcels made "a big difference".
"Once you've paid all your bills there's really not a lot left to last the whole month for food shopping," she said.
"A couple of weeks in and you're struggling and wondering where the next meal is going to come from and making what you've got stretch."
The highest rates of children eligible for free school meals are in north-east England, where 27.5% qualify, and the West Midlands, where the figure is 24.5%.
These areas also saw the largest increase from 2020.
By contrast, 16% of pupils are eligible in south-east England, although all regions saw some increase from 2020.