Education Secretary defends Pupil Deprivation Grant and free school meal eligibility changes

(Title Image: Llanelli Herald)

Yesterday, the Senedd discussed the Education & Young People’s Committee’s report on targeted funding for pupils.

A Widening Gap

Chair of the Committee, Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) welcomed the Welsh Government’s acceptance of some of the report’s recommendations – namely to ensure Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) funding wasn’t solely used for low-achieving pupils who receive free school meals (FSM) and that the government would closely monitor the impact of the PDG.

However, she noted with concern the widening gap in attainment between FSM pupils and everyone else:

“….what really concerned the committee was the widening gap between FSM pupils and their peers. We found that there’s now a disincentive to schools to enter pupils for vocational qualifications, even where it might be right for that pupil, and this has affected eFSM pupils disproportionately.”
– Chair of the Education & Young People Committee, Lynne Neagle AM

There were further concerns from Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) with regard how the PDG was used with adopted children; adopted children are eligible for PDG spending but it was unclear whether the money’s being spent on them or not.

An Honest Appraisal

Shadow Education Secretary, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), called for a deeper analysis of the PDG and where responsibility for weaknesses in the system lie.

“We recognise what you hope to achieve through the PDG and would expect a robust defence of it when it appears to be falling short, but what we will be looking for in particular is a credible explanation of why it works when it does and an honest appraisal of why it doesn’t when it doesn’t. Because, if it is literally just about money, we’ll support you in your arguments to the Finance Secretary to get more money. However, if it’s about weaknesses within school leadership or consortia or local authorities, or even within Welsh Government or Estyn, you need to be frank with us.”
– Shadow Education Secretary, Suzy Davies AM

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) raised concerns about eligibility changes for free school meals, which are being taken forward by the Welsh Government next year:

“At present, families who are eligible for universal credit are eligible for free school meals. Under the Government’s proposals, only families with net earnings under £7,400 a year will be eligible for free school meals from January 2019.”
– Sian Gwenllian AM

Sian added it was disappointing that Estyn found that only two-thirds of schools were using the PDG (spending which has totalled £400million to date) in an effective manner.

Making a Difference

The PDG is a Liberal Democrat policy and, as you might expect, the Education Secretary was more than willing to defend it:

“Many of you here in this Chamber will have heard me say more than once that the PDG is both a policy and a personal commitment of mine as well as of this Government, but more important than what I say is what schools think about the PDG—that’s more important—and they agree. The recent evaluation found that schools find the PDG invaluable and I am frequently told by headteachers and classroom teachers alike of the difference that it is making on a daily basis.”
– Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

Addressing concerns about free school meal eligibility, the Secretary said there were basic issues around affordability; if every pupil in a family receiving universal credit were eligible, then more than half of all pupils would receive a free school meal. She stressed that under the new criteria more pupils would be eligible and those who currently are but would no longer be will be “cohort protected”.

She also accepted more needed to be done to improve the educational performance of FSM pupils, but it had to be on the basis of pushing them to achieve the highest grade possible, not “adopting a ‘poor dab’ syndrome” or placing high expectations on all children regardless of their background.

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