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Schools could lose money as a result of welfare reform that is either ill thought out or a "back door for cuts", a head teacher has warned.
The pupil premium paid to schools to help disadvantaged children is at risk if the children no longer qualify for free school meals under the government’s new Universal Credit benefit scheme
Next year the single Universal Credit system will replace six income-related work-based benefits. The move is designed to ensure people are always better off in work than on benefits.
The Children’s Society has warned that if a household’s income exceeds £7,500 under the new system, its children will no longer be eligible for free school meals. It estimates that 120,000 poorer families will lose free schools meals, worth £367 annually for each of the 350,000 children set to miss out.
What has gone unreported, however, is that schools’ entitlement to the pupil premium is based on eligibility for free schools meals, which the government uses as an indicator of deprivation. If a child is no longer eligible, the school no longer qualifies for the £488 pupil premium – extra funding that deputy prime minister Nick Clegg claimed was a key Lib Dem victory in the coalition government agreement and would help tackle persistent inequality in educational achievement.
“I am caught between whether the government is incompetent and hasn’t realised the impact of their moves or whether they are using back door methods to make cuts,” said Tony Gavin, head of Laurence Jackson Secondary School in Guisborough, North Yorkshire.
“Either way it’s a pretty poor show. Don’t the Lib Dems realise that one of their flagship policies faces emasculation? It’s all very worrying.”
Just 27 per cent of children on free school meals get five good GCSE grades. Among those who don’t qualify, the proportion achieving the same grades is twice as great. At Laurence Jackson, 150 pupils are eligible – 11 per cent of the school roll compared with a national average of 13 per cent.
“We use our pupil-premium funds very creatively by getting children on educational trips, giving equipment grants, employing someone to check up on pupils who haven’t attended school and by keeping class sizes down,” said Gavin. “As a result we get a very good attendance record in all year groups.”
Gavin estimates that the introduction of Universal Credit could mean that between a third and a half of his pupils currently receiving free schools could lose eligibility. That could also bring a cut in the school’s annual budget of up to £36,000.
The Department for Education insisted it was keen to ensure that families on low incomes continue to get free school meals and that it will be going out to consultation on how to achieve its aims this year.
“We remain totally committed to continuing to provide free school meals to children from the poorest families,” said a spokesperson.
“We are reforming welfare to get more people into jobs as that is the surest way of cutting poverty. The reforms mean we will have to think hard about the best way to decide who is eligible for free school meals so they continue to be targeted at those who need them the most. No plans have yet been set.”
But the spokesperson would not comment on whether any loss of eligibility for free school meals would lead to a loss in pupil-premium funding for schools.
Introducing the pupil premium in 2010, Clegg said: “Whilst we’re all having to accept difficult cuts this spending is the right thing to do to improve the life chances of the poorest by investing in a fairness premium.”
A key part of the Lib Dems’ local elections campaign this week, the pupil premium will cost a total of £1.25 billion in 2012-13.