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School funding chiefs at education committee: 9 things we learned

Freddie Whittaker
February 23, 2021

Government school funding bosses were quizzed by MPs this morning about catch-up funding, the pupil premium and school spending.

The Parliamentary education committee held a hearing with Department for Education director of strategic finance Tony Foot, director for qualifications, curriculum and extra-curricular Graham Archer and Education and Skills Funding Agency director of academies and maintained schools Warwick Sharp.

Here’s what we learned.

 

1. Academic catch up will be ‘linked’ to HAF programme

The government is due to set out its plans for further catch-up provision for pupils, with longer school days and summer schools being mooted as options.

Committee chair Robert Halfon asked the witnesses whether there was any plan to link proposed academic catch-up efforts with the £220 million holiday activities and food programme, which is being extended to all council areas this year.

Archer said it was “clear” that catch-up “needs to involve both the re-engagement, energising, socialising activity that the holiday activities and food work allows, alongside a more academic focus, more so for some pupils, perhaps those closer to the end of their period in education or at a point of transition”.

He added: “Yes, we do need those things to work together and yes committee members can expect to hear more about that.”

Archer said a breakdown of the additional £300 million in catch-up funding allocated last month would be set out later this week, along with “more details about how the other aspects of the programme announced by the prime minister, summer schools and how the Covid recovery premium will be used”.

Asked about the potential for longer school days, Archer said recently-appointed education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins would be looking at “precisely some of those questions”, including “those around how more teaching time can be got into the school system”.

 

2. Premium funding used for catch-up, mental health and remote ed

Ministers allocated £650 million in catch-up premium to schools for this academic year.

Although he said schools were “only now getting the great bulk of that money”, Archer said the DfE was already seeing a “range of uses” in its dealings with schools, though he said it was “too early I think to have a formal assessment of what the impact of that has been”.

“We’re getting some sense of some effective use on evidence-based programmes of work, we’re getting some evidence of use to support children with mental health and other needs which are getting in the way of learning. We are getting some evidence of use to support remote education,” he said.

 

3. Polling company to examine catch-up spending

Archer revealed during the hearing that polling firm Ipsos MORI has been commissioned to carry out research on how £650 million in catch-up funding is being spent by schools and the impact it is having.

The research project, which is being carried out in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University, will cost £190,000.

It means that the DfE “will be able to say much more effectively in due course what the impact has been”, he said.

It comes on top of up to £143,000 spent on a contract with Renaissance Learning last year for a research project looking at the extent of lost learning. The government also tendered this week for an £85,000 contract to look at the harms caused by the pandemic.

Asked why so much money was being spent on “consultants” rather than continuing with national assessments, Archer said: “Our view is that the best way of getting a good sense of lost learning was in the way described, using tests that schools regularly make, using a sense of prior attainment.

“We did not want to burden schools or indeed pupils with either the SATs or the exams processes at the end of this year.”

 

4. Pupil premium census date change was for ‘certainty’

The government recently came under fire for changing the census date upon which pupil premium funding is determined.

Previously, pupil premium funding was allocated based on the January school census, but this year it will be based on numbers from October. Some leaders have expressed concerns that the change means they will miss out on funding for pupils who became eligible for support between October and January.

Foot told the committee the change was done for “two reasons”.

“One was to align the pupil premium with the rest of the core schools funding system. So the core schools funding system overall operates on an October census point. Pupil premium has been the outlier as the January census point and this aligns the premium with the rest of the system.

“The other driver and reason was certainty, both for the department and for the system. We had at that point a certain October count and a certain October census, and this year of all years, giving certainty and creating certainty as early as possible we thought had value.”

Foot was asked about claims the DfE stood to save over £150 million as a result of the change, but said he did not recognise the figure or have any other figure for the expected saving. He said he would write to MPs with “further details”.

 

5. DfE wants tutoring to be ‘full and normal’ part of school life

Ministers have so far allocated £350 million to their flagship National Tutoring Programme. The funding was initially only announced to cover one year, but was then extended.

Archer told MPs today he expected there would be “significant funding available to roll into next year”, and added: “Our plan is that tutoring should be a full and normal part of academic life in all schools.”

So far, around 125,000 pupils have signed up for tutoring, and Archer said the DfE was still aiming to reach its target of 250,000 pupils this academic year.

“I think the fact that schools are returning will make a difference and schools will be able to see more clearly the need for their pupils and where tutoring can be best used. So I would expect to see a sharp increase fairly quickly.”

 

6. NTP take-up is slower in the north

Archer admitted during the hearing that the government was seeing a “slightly slower take-up in, I think, areas of the country where tutoring is seen as a less normal part of academic life”.

“So it is slower to take up in the north essentially than in the south,” he said, adding that the government was working with schools, academy trusts and local authorities to “push hard the messages of the benefits of tutoring to those pupils.

 

7. DfE planning ‘modelling’ on costs of extended school day

One of the proposals being mooted to aid catch-up is a lengthening of the school day, but leaders have expressed concerns about what it may cost.

The witnesses were asked whether any modelling had been done on what it could cost.

Archer said the government was “thinking about that issue as part of the work that Kevan Collins has done. There will be modelling undertaken as part of that work of course.”

 

8. ‘No signs’ of school finance ‘stress’ due to Covid

MPs raised concerns this morning about schools struggling to cope with the costs of the pandemic. Figures from the NAHT school leaders’ union showed additional costs and lost income had cost schools around £900 million by last October.

But Sharp said the number of schools and trusts struggling as a result was “relatively small”.

“I lead a team that works very closely with academy trusts and local authorities, of course accountable for maintained schools, and what we’ve seen across the board is of course this has been a hugely challenging time for the school system, but we’re not seeing signs of great stress in terms of financial management and governance.

“We’re not seeing more trusts come forward that are moving into deficits that are particularly concerning. Of course, as you say, some costs have gone up, that’s absolutely clear. Some others have gone down. We’re focused on working case-by-case with trusts, with local authorities. If they are struggling, it’s a relatively small number.”

 

9. No timescale for hard funding formula introduction

The government has been working to implement its national funding formula, which is supposed to account for historic underfunding in certain areas.

However, hard implementation of the formula has been repeatedly delayed, with councils now receiving funding based on the NFF, but with freedoms in how they allocate the funding.

Asked when the hard NFF would come into effect, Foot said no timescale had been set, but that the DfE would begin “extensive” consultation “shortly”.