Education councillor comments on free school meal funding shortfall

Terry Douris, Herts County Council executive member for education. Picture: David Hartnup

Terry Douris, Herts County Council executive member for education. Picture: David Hartnup - Credit: Archant

National changes in the way funds are allocated to support the most disadvantaged pupils could have a seven-figure impact on Hertfordshire schools, it has been suggested.

Earlier this month, we reported that schools across Herts will miss out on £1.9 million of funding, due to the way the government allocates money for underprivileged children.

Hertfordshire County Council’s executive member for education, Cllr Terry Douris, has committed to raise the issue with the Secretary of State.

The issue focusses on the allocation of Pupil Premium - extra school funding designed to help the most disadvantaged children.

The funding is allocated based on the number of children who have claimed ‘free school meals’ within the past six years – or who have left the care of the local authority.

But, in a change to previous years, rather than being based on the numbers recorded in January – the figures are being calculated on eligible pupils from the previous October.

Data retrieved from a Freedom of Information request to Herts County Council shows that an additional 1,518 pupils began claiming free school meals between October 2020 and January 2021; 1,153 of whom attend primary schools in our county.

As a result, there will be less Pupil Premium funding for schools in Hertfordshire than there would have been otherwise.

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Schools are given £1,345 for each primary and £955 for each secondary-age pupil who claims free school meals, or has done so in the last six years.

With central government not counting the new claimants, schools in Herts will miss out on the extra funding; £1,550,785 of which would have gone to primary schools and £348,575 of which would have gone to secondary schools. 

At the annual meeting of the county council on May 25, the issue was raised by Liberal Dem Cllr Mark Watkin, who put the loss at an estimated £1.75 million.

Cllr Watkin suggested Herts had one of the widest attainment gaps in the country – suggesting there was little evidence of it narrowing.

He asked executive member Cllr Douris whether he agreed that the Pupil Premium was “a vital part of government’s levelling-up agenda” – and whether the cut was “unacceptable”.

Cllr Douris acknowledged that nationally the amount the government had provided in Pupil Premium funding would increase this year by £100 million – to £2.5 billion.

But he said that the change in the data used – from January to the previous October – meant that the 1,518 pupils claiming free school meals in the county in January would no longer be eligible for the funding.

Cllr Douris committed to raise the issue with the government: “I do intend to write to the Secretary of State to seek guidance on how he considers the government might best support us in achieving an appropriate solution to this particular issue."

He added that narrowing the gap is of “absolute importance in providing the best possible education for all our children and particularly those in benefit of Pupil Premium."

Newly-elected Labour Cllr Tina Bhartwas also raised the issue at the meeting.

Cllr Bhartwas, who received free school meals as a child, is also the organiser for Hertfordshire Against Holiday Hunger.

Speaking for the first time as a county councillor, she said: “As had been mentioned, between October 2020 and January 2021, 1,518 pupils began claiming ‘free school meals’ – but central government is excluding them from the Pupil Premium grant.

“That’s a short-change of £1.9 million to this county. I wanted to know specifically what this administration in is going to do about this?”

In response, Cllr Douris suggested that the county council may be seeking reimbursement from the government: “I propose writing to the Secretary of State seeking clarification and guidance on how the government may actually seek to reimburse us for this missing £1.9 million.

“We will write and it will be up to the government to respond to us in the way they feel most appropriate.”

The annual meeting of the county council was the first meeting of the council since the May 6 local elections.

And – held in the Gordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage – it was the first ‘in-person’ meeting of the full council since the coronavirus regulations that had allowed councils to meet virtually had lapsed.