Government promises to level-up funding in education have resulted in money being shifted away from schools in the most disadvantaged areas and invested in pupils in more prosperous areas of England, according to the official parliamentary spending watchdog.
A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% between 2017-18 and 2020-21, while it increased by 2.9% in the least deprived fifth.
It follows the implementation of the government’s new national funding formula in 2018-19 which introduced a minimum level of per pupil funding across England, triggering increased payments to schools in wealthier areas of the country with traditionally lower funding levels and leaving schools in cities with high levels of deprivation worse off.
The report was published on Friday amid mounting evidence elsewhere of the disproportionate impact of Covid on already disadvantaged pupils. Official new government data revealed that disadvantaged pupils who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) had higher rates of Covid-related absence from school during the autumn term than their wealthier peers. It also found that children from most ethnic minority backgrounds missed more school than their white classmates.
Data obtained by the National Education Union and shared exclusively with the Guardian meanwhile found that autumn attendance was at its lowest in schools with the highest rates of FSM eligibility – 79% in secondary schools with the highest rates of FSM, compared with 86% in those with lowest FSM rates.
At the same time, a new survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research of attainment among six and seven-year-olds in England found the disadvantage gap between rich and poor widened post-Covid.
Overall pupils in year two were three months behind in their reading and two months behind in their mathematics, compared with pre-Covid levels, but the disadvantage gap increased from six months’ progress to around seven months for reading and eight months for maths.
The NAO report also challenged the government narrative of a huge injection of extra cash into schools in England. It found that although total funding for schools increased by 7.1% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2020-21, the growth in pupil numbers meant real-terms funding per pupil rose by 0.4%.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, questioned whether the government’s new funding model was matching resources to need. “There has been a shift in the balance of funding from more deprived to less deprived local areas. Although more deprived areas and schools continue to receive more per-pupil funding than those that are less deprived, the difference in funding has narrowed.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, backed the introduction of the national funding formula but said the government had failed to put sufficient money into the system to support its aims.
“The result is that slicing it in a different way has created a new inequity with many schools in deprived areas losing out. These schools support children and young people who face the greatest degree of challenge in their lives and they desperately need this funding. The government has failed them.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “The Conservatives have abandoned children on free school meals and are letting their learning fall further behind their peers. Their woeful catch-up plans – which even their own expert adviser described as ‘feeble’ – are utterly insufficient to help children recover the education and socialising they’ve missed.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said areas with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds continued to receive the highest levels of funding under the new funding formula.
“We are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14bn in total over the three years to 2022-23 – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”