A move in 2016 to the new universal credit system for unifying benefits may make it more difficult to identify disadvantaged pupils, says the National Audit Office (NAO).
Its warning comes amid concerns that the funding for poorer pupils has not protected budgets in schools in disadvantaged communities.
Released this week, the NAO report on funding for disadvantaged pupils says that already more than 11 per cent of eligible pupils do not currently get free school meals because their parents do not claim the entitlement.
Receipt of means-tested free school meals at any point in the past six years currently triggers the release of pupil premium funding – a fixed sum given to schools for each disadvantaged pupil.
According to the report, the introduction from 2016 of universal credit – a system that unifies benefits into one payment – “may make it more difficult comprehensively and consistently to identify all disadvantaged pupils”.
The Department for Education (DfE) “is considering how to address this important issue”, said the report.
When approached, the DfE said it was considering the NAO report “carefully” but gave no further details.
Professor Uvanney Maylor, of the Institute for Research in Education at the University of Bedford and a specialist in educational equity and social justice, said the changes would make it difficult to identify disadvantaged pupils. “Schools will not know which students will be identified as needing extra support.”
The report also calls on the DfE to set out how it will measure the impact of the pupil premium money it gives to schools for poorer pupils. Once the definition changes there are concerns that evaluation will be disrupted.
The DfE should set out the attainment measures it will use for evaluation, the report suggests “and ensure these continue to be measured in a comparable way until at least 2023”.
In good news for the government, school leaders reported that the pupil premium had increased their focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged students, and 63 per cent of schools were now spending some of the money on improved feedback between teachers and pupils – one of the interventions considered to be most effective by the Education Endowment Foundation.
But the report also said that other real-terms reductions in school funding meant the pupil premium had not always increased school budgets.
Over the past four years the DfE has given £6 billion to schools under the pupil premium policy, but reduced other school funding in real terms.
The report estimates that per-pupil funding in 16 per cent of the most disadvantaged secondary schools fell by more than 5 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15.
Alan Dyson, professor of education and co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at Manchester University, said: “In most schools what the pupil premium did was just about make good the funding that had been lost through other routes by 2011.”