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Weight funding towards schools tackling persistent poverty

Four years on from the first national lockdown it is now well established that the Covid pandemic led to lost learning and a widening of the disadvantage gap. Those effects are persisting.

During the pandemic, the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance carried out work for the Department for Education to track pupil outcomes using Star Reading and Star Maths in the absence of key stage assessments and external examinations.

Our two organisations have worked together again to help better understand the long-term impact of the pandemic in reading and maths, and how we can more effectively identify and close attainment gaps. We’ve done this by examining the results of over six million assessments in reading and mathematics taken between autumn 2017 and summer 2023.

They show that despite recovery in reading, learning losses in maths persist. Primary-aged pupils are two months behind where pupils of the same age were pre-pandemic. Secondary-aged pupils are over four months behind.

While the disadvantage gap – the gap between pupils from low-income backgrounds and their peers – has narrowed slightly in the most recent data, it is still well above where it was in 2019. And we know from EPI’s annual report, even prior to the pandemic, progress in closing the gap had stalled.

But what our analysis also highlights is the particularly low outcomes of those pupils we identify as persistently disadvantaged. These are pupils who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time in school.

We find that among primary-aged pupils, persistently disadvantaged pupils are typically ten months behind their non-disadvantaged peers in maths, and over 14 months behind in reading. In fact, the size of the gap for these pupils is almost double that seen for pupils who experience disadvantage for a relatively short period of time. This means that the differences within the disadvantage group are almost as significant as the differences between the disadvantage group and others.

The national funding formula and pupil premium don’t make a distinction between these different levels of disadvantage

Neither the national funding formula – by which the majority of school funding is set – nor the pupil premium make a distinction between these different levels of economic disadvantage. In other words, a pupil who was eligible for free school meals for a short period up to six years ago attracts the same level of disadvantage funding as a pupil who was eligible on their first day of school and has been ever since. This is despite the fact that their outcomes – whether measured through key stage assessments, GCSEs, or now for the first time Star Assessments – are substantially different.

It is clear that better support is needed to improve outcomes for these groups. Instead, schools with highly disadvantaged intakes have faced a particularly challenging funding situation.

Since 2018, additional funding for schools has been disproportionately targeted towards schools that had historically lower levels of funding due to the policy of “levelling up”. In fact, these schools have tended to have less-disadvantaged intakes.

We need additional targeted funding for disadvantage, and we need that funding to be weighted more heavily towards persistent disadvantage. This would benefit schools dealing with long-term, entrenched poverty and be a genuine move to level up opportunity.   

In practice, this is complicated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify who falls into this persistently disadvantaged group using the free school meals data collected by the Department for Education.

The rollout of Universal Credit has been accompanied by benefit protections meaning that pupils have remained eligible for free school meals even if their circumstances have changed. As a result, it is becoming harder to distinguish between those pupils who are in long-term poverty and those who receive free school meals because of these protections.

But even allowing for this there is evidence of rising persistence of poverty and this is likely to be one of the drivers for the widening disadvantage gap. While the prime minister has often said that education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to improving people’s lives, it is simply not right to expect schools in isolation, or even the Department for Education, to fix all of society’s problems.

There is an urgent need for a cross-government child poverty strategy which recognises the root causes of education inequalities, such as poverty, housing, healthcare, transport, and many other aspects of daily life.

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