Rising Eligibility for Free School Meals
Almost 1.9 million pupils are now eligible for free school meals (FSM) in England, increasing by roughly a third since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. The bulk of the increase occurred between 2020 and 2021, as eligibility climbed by twenty-one percent. But since January 2021, figures have risen by a further nine percent. The highest rates are found in the north-east of England, where nearly one in three children qualify for FSM.
The government explains that FSM eligibility has been on the rise since before Covid, and this year’s figures are ‘in line with those increases seen prior to the pandemic.’ They also add that pupils do not lose eligibility as easily as they gain it due to ‘transitional protections.’
Union leaders are alarmed by the rising levels of poverty and how this will impact children’s education. Julie McCulloch at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says ‘we recognise that this rise is at least partly due to transitional protections […] but it is also likely that we are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic on many families affected by illness and job losses. Their circumstances will become even more severe because of the cost of living crisis.’
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), reiterates that union members ‘have described the rise in poverty in their schools’ communities over the past year as shocking and stark.’ In response to rising poverty levels, unions are petitioning the government to widen FSM eligibility to include children from all households receiving universal credit, not just those earning less than £7,400 a year.
Government Promises Fair School Funding For All
As part of its mission to level-up education, the government plans to implement a series of reforms to ensure that school funding is distributed with greater fairness, transparency and efficiency. Ministers hope reforms will come into effect within the next five years, although some changes could be accomplished even sooner. School leaders, business managers and governors are encouraged to get involved with the consultation process to help the government ‘get the detail right.’
In their latest consultation, the government confirmed its commitment to introduce a direct National Funding Formula (NFF). Currently, government funds are received by councils, which then allocate cash to schools using their own local formulae. By moving to a direct NFF, the government hopes to create a more level playing field, where cash is given to schools directly without local adjustment. This will ensure every school is ‘funded on the same basis, wherever it is in the country, and every child given the same opportunities.’
The government went on to explain their planned approach to the NFF in greater detail. Proposals include making restrictions to the use of growth funding, which is used to support schools as they undergo demographic changes among their pupil population. At the moment, councils are largely in control of how this funding is distributed, but according to ministers, this has led to ‘considerable variation.’ To achieve more consistency, the government will consider applying restrictions to how growth funding is used, or introducing a national standardised system.
Similarly, the government observes a ‘great deal of variation’ in the way split sites funding is distributed. These funds are intended to support schools that operate across a number of sites, with the average amount totalling at £58,000. However, under the current system, some schools receive less than £3000, whilst others receive more than £200,000. To address this disparity, ministers propose setting up a specific national formula for split sites funding, including a basic set of eligibility criteria to attract a lump-sum payment, with another distance eligibility criteria for a separate payment.
There are many other proposals set out in the consultation. For example, the government plans to make significant reductions to exceptional circumstances cash; establish a minimum funding guarantee based on school budgets; and introduce a new funding calculator. Read the full document here and find out how you can share your response.
What Makes a School “Stuck?”
In the government’s Case for a fully trust-led system document, ministers argue that underperforming schools can be positively transformed by multi-academy trusts. To improve standards, they propose that schools which have received two consecutive below “Good” ratings from Ofsted should therefore be moved into strong trusts.
In light of this announcement, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) launched an investigation into the cycles of low performance which some schools find themselves stuck in, analysing a sample of schools repeatedly judged less than “Good” in the years between September 2005 to August 2018.
Researchers found that ‘“stuck” schools face a combination of unusually challenging circumstances,’ including high rates of pupil mobility, pupils eligible for free school meals, and pupils living in deprived areas. However, ‘one of the most striking findings’ were the high teacher turnover rates. Over a five year period, stuck primary schools lost seventy-three percent of their teachers, compared to just fifty-four percent in non-stuck primaries. Rates were similar in secondary schools.
After joining a trust, secondary schools were more likely to receive “Good” or better Ofsted ratings, as teacher turnover rates reduced. Interestingly, however, researchers did not ‘observe any knock-on effect on pupil progress.’ For primary schools, the EPI observed no positive effects of joining a trust at all, explaining that any ‘small potential benefits were offset by increased teacher turnover contributing to worse inspection grades.’
The EPI encourages the Department for Education to review the impact of academisation on “stuck” schools in order to gain a better understanding of the variances between primary and secondary settings. Perhaps more importantly, researchers argue that the DfE must consider how to stabilise staffing issues, concluding that ‘reducing excessively high teacher turnover, including loss of key staff and governance changes, needs to happen before the school can improve.’
As we strive towards a fairer school system, we cannot underestimate the importance of strong teams, bonded by their shared passion, resilience, and sense of vocation.
We can help you support your staff by completing skills audits and delivering high quality CPD. Make the most of what your team has to offer by understanding the strengths of each individual and pooling together their expertise. Find out how we can help and make an enquiry today.