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09.10.15

Universal credit to worsen pupil premium inconsistency in public schools – PAC

The roll-out of universal credit will make it “harder” to identify children eligible to benefit from the pupil premium, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found as it called for “urgent steps” to be taken to tackle inequalities within the scheme.

The PAC said it was “very concerned” about the effects of universal credit, noting that the department “admits” it still has no plan to address this. It asked for an update on its progress within six months.

The report said: “The department has not yet resolved the potentially destabilising impact that universal credit may have on its ability to identify disadvantaged pupils. Universal credit… means the end of the current basis for determining free school meals and therefore pupil premium eligibility.

“The department does not yet know how it will identify disadvantaged pupils following universal credit’s introduction, and there is relatively little time to find an answer.”

It added that the department should ensure local authorities encourage all eligible parents to register for free school meals, and be clear about how it intends to incentivise councils to do this “well”.

The stark warning follows a similar analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) published in June, which stated that the six-in-one benefit could “make it difficult to identify disadvantaged pupils consistently”.

The committee also found that, while there has been “some narrowing” of the attainment gap in education, results of the Department of Education’s premium have been “uneven”.

Meg Hillier, MP, the committee’s chair, said: “It is clearly in children’s best interests that weaker schools learn from successes elsewhere and new measures are needed to ensure this happens.

“Urgent steps must be taken to establish benchmarks for effectiveness and ensure best practice – where evidence shows pupil premium spending and implementation is working – is followed across the sector.

“There needs to be a better understanding of why disadvantaged pupils from different backgrounds can perform so differently. Similar, the department should clarify the options open to schools where parental disengagement is seen as an obstacle to improvement.”

The committee demanded that the department should provide a “clear timetable” to review the schools’ funding formula, which currently “sees some schools receive about £3,000 a year more than others per disadvantaged pupil”.

“There continues to be wide variation in the funding given to schools, even those dealing with similar levels of disadvantage. The £390m given to 69 local authority areas with the lowest levels of school funding is a step in the right direction, but there is much more to do,” the report said.

Commenting on the findings, Lucy Powell MP, shadow education secretary, said: “We have been warning the government for some time that the introduction of universal credit will have knock-on consequences for allocating the pupil premium. It beggars belief that they still haven’t resolved this issue.

“With the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers widening, it’s vital that the government takes urgent action to ensure that disadvantaged pupils don’t lose out and that the pupil premium is effective.”

(Top image c. Creatas)

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