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Schools and academies in Havering will miss out on more than £500,000 for their poorest pupils this year after an unexpected change to Government funding.
Pupil premium funding, introduced almost a decade ago, allocates extra money to schools each year for each student eligible for free school meals or in care.
While this has historically been based on the number of eligible students recorded each January, the Department of Education decided in December to use the number from October 1.
This morning, Havering’s Schools Funding Forum heard that the increase in students receiving free school meals from October to January showed schools had missed out on £514,000.
This disproportionately affected the borough’s primary schools, which lost £433,000, with the worst affected school losing £28,000 worth of extra funding.
John McGill, representing the NASUWT teachers’ union, argued the sudden shift “seemed to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the pupil premium”.
He added: “It’s interesting that the £500,000 saving is effectively meeting the cost of COVID-19 exceptional costs (given to Havering schools) but maybe I’m just cynical.”
Schools were allowed to request compensation for some costs incurred due to the pandemic, such as free school meals for children forced to stay home and the cost of extra cleaning.
The total amount given to the borough’s schools by the Department of Education for these COVID-19 costs is £510,437.
Trevor Cook, from Havering Education Services, agreed it was not clear whether funding being given to schools “is new money or recycled old money”.
The council’s principal finance officer for schools, Nick Carter, told the forum: “The Department of Education brought this in without any consultation or notice. It’s effectively a cut in your budget.
“It’s quite easy to see reasons for this. Everybody is working towards the January date, that’s historically when everyone aims to maximise students registered for free school meals.
“(October 1 is) the first week, when some of the reception pupils have only just started. The schools had not got the term to work on parents to get them to register.
“The other reason, of course, is the impact of the pandemic. Any increase in (parents’) unemployment that happened between October and January won’t get picked up.
“The Department of Education says the overall amount (of money going to schools) is higher than ever before but I think so is the need really.”
Mr Carter noted the stated justification for making the change was to “allow schools to know what their funding will be earlier” but it will be announced this year at the normal time, which is the end of June.
In future years the Department of Education plans to announce pupil premium funding allocation at the end of February, although Mr Carter added that “it is not actually that difficult to calculate what (schools) would be getting”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We moved to using the October census to calculate pupil premium allocation so that schools know their budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead.
“We expect pupil premium funding to increase to more than £2.5 billion in 2021-22, reflecting an increase in the number of eligible pupils.
“We are taking steps to make sure every pupil gets an excellent education, no matter their background.
“That’s why we continue to allocate pupil premium funding to schools at unchanged per-pupil rates, in addition to the significant new catch-up and recovery funding we have introduced, which is targeted towards schools most in need to support disadvantaged students’ attainment.”