Newly eligible pupils may need less support than the long-term disadvantaged, but it’s the poorest schools who have lost out most, writes Dawson McLean

The Department for Education’s newest statistics show 1.74 million pupils were eligible for free school meals in January 2021. That’s an increase of nearly 300,000 pupils since January of last year, a jump of 3.5 per cent of the total student population, from 17.3 to 20.8 per cent in a year.

However, due to a recent change in how this funding is allocated, many of these newly eligible pupils did not attract funding to their schools. Of the total increase in free school meal eligible pupils, 62,000 fewer pupils attracted pupil premium funding than would have without the change, amounting to a reduction in total pupil premium funding of almost £90 million.  

The pupil premium was introduced in 2011 to help address the persistent attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Currently, pupil premium funding is paid to schools based on the number of pupils who claim free school meals or have claimed them in the past six years, and is set at £1,345 for primary-age pupils and £955 for secondary-age pupils.

In December 2020, the DfE announced it would be changing the basis of pupil premium funding so that payments would be based on the October pupil count, rather than the traditional January count. Many schools have lost out on funding as a result.  

With this change, pupils who became eligible for free school meals between October 2020 and January 2021 would not have qualified for free school meals in time to increase their school’s pupil premium funding. Yet due to the pandemic, these months were highly likely to see an increase in the number of eligible pupils.  

And even for those who did become eligible before the October count, schools had less time than they would have reasonably expected to record ‘new’ free school meal eligibility, leading to an undercounting of the true number of eligible pupils.

The most disadvantaged schools have borne the brunt of the increase in FSM eligibility

Over the past year, most of the increase in free school meal eligibility has occurred in the most disadvantaged schools. While the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by two pupils per hundred in the least disadvantaged 20 per cent of schools (based on the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals in 2020), the 20 per cent most disadvantaged schools saw an increase of about six in every hundred.  

This is likely partly explained by different economic effects of the pandemic across the country. Schools in the North, Midlands and London experienced larger increases in pupils eligible for free school meals per hundred than schools in the South and East. These same regions also saw the largest increases to the average unemployment rate between November 2020 to January 2021, relative to the previous three months.

Although we can’t say exactly which schools are most affected from the change in the basis for pupil premium funding, the latest statistics confirm that the most disadvantaged schools have borne the brunt of the increase in pupils eligible for free school meals and therefore are the most likely to have lost out on funding due to the change.  

We can add that current evidence suggests the change in pupil premium funding has primarily impacted primary schools. That means this effect is likely to be further concentrated in the most disadvantaged primary schools. While disconcerting in its own right, this is doubly concerning as we know the most disadvantaged schools are also the most likely to require additional support to help their pupils catch up.

Some may reason that the educational needs of pupils who became eligible for free school meals during the pandemic differ from those living in long-term disadvantaged households. We would need more granular detail about who they are to confirm or negate that argument. But in the meantime, they likely still need extra support from their schools during this period.  

And at a time when the most disadvantaged schools are most in need of support, reducing the funding available to them is certainly questionable as an ‘evidence-based policy’.