Government funding intended to help the country’s most disadvantaged children is being used to plug holes in insufficient school budgets, as schools face the most drastic cuts to spending in decades.
In a survey of 1,361 teachers, around a third of heads said their school had been forced to use pupil premium funding to cover other costs – with schools from the most disadvantaged areas most often affected.
On top of this, almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of the secondary school headteachers polled said their school had cut back on teaching staff to save money.
As many as 80 per cent said they had cut back on either teaching staff or teaching assistants, and half of teachers said they had cut both.
The research, conducted by the National Foundation for the Education Research for the Sutton Trust, follows a report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last month detailing how schools in England face their first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee warned children’s futures are being put “at risk” as a result, with class sizes expanding and the quality of education in English schools likely to fall further.
This week it was revealed that half of schools in England had been forced to ask parents for some form of financial help as a result of crippling budget cuts, with one in six teachers admitting their school had asked parents for cash donations directly.
Some teachers reported having to teach classes of 60 pupils or more as a result of staff shortages, a problem industry leaders say is likely to escalate as the school-age population grows.
Commenting on the Sutton Trust survey, the shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, said the latest figures provided further evidence that the country's most vulnerable children were most likely to suffer as a result of Government cuts to education.
She told The Independent: “This is the second survey in the space of a week to show that the unprecedented squeeze on our schools has left head teachers facing terrible choices on how to keep afloat.
"The Sutton Trust results show that it is the poorest paying the highest price. Pupil premium money is propping up school budgets and schools serving the most disadvantaged children are reporting the steepest cuts.
“The Tories promised to protect funding for every child, but that promise is being broken and the next generation is being left to pick up the pieces.”
According to the latest figures, schools with more disadvantaged intakes are more likely to report cuts to staff.
Almost half (47 per cent) of heads in the most disadvantaged fifth of primary and secondary schools said they had cut teaching staff, compared with just over a third (35 per cent) in the least disadvantaged fifth of schools.
Teachers in London and the North-east were also more likely to report cutting staff.
National Union of Teachers general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “Head teachers are cutting back on all spending areas to try and keep teachers in front of classes.
"The fact that some heads seem to be using resources allocated for poorer peoples is deeply reprehensible and shows how badly the government is handling our education service.
"In their manifesto they told parents: 'The money following your child to school would be protected', but that turns out to be simply untrue. The Government should correct that immediately, by funding our schools properly."
The pupil premium is additional funding for state-funded schools in England designed to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, regardless of ability, and help close the gaps between them and their peers.
It applies to all local authority schools including those for children with special education needs or disabilities, as well as academies and free schools, and is allocated for each child eligible for free school meals.
When asked their priorities for spending their pupil premium funding, most teachers cited early intervention schemes (27 per cent), followed by more one-to-tuition (12 per cent) and teaching assistants (12 per cent).
Just 4 per cent of all teachers cited pupil feedback as a priority and only a handful (1 per cent) said peer-to-peer tutoring – two methods proven to be highly cost-effective in terms of raising individual performance levels.
Almost a fifth (18 per cent) of teachers said they don’t know what their school’s main priority for pupil premium spending is.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Our new polling adds to the growing evidence from highly credible sources that the squeeze on school budgets is having a detrimental effect on schools.
“Of particular concern is that schools are having to use funding for poorer pupils to plug gaps in their finances. Many are having to get rid of teachers to close these funding gaps."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The pupil premium – worth £2.5bn this year – is helping the most disadvantaged pupils and closing the attainment gap at both primary and secondary level.
"All schools are trusted to use this premium to ensure it meets the needs of their students and are held to account by Ofsted for how disadvantaged pupils benefit from the extra funding.
“School funding at its highest level on record at almost £41bn in 2017-18 – and that is set to rise, as pupil numbers rise, to £42bn by 2019-20.
“We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures and we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in cost effective ways. This includes improving the way they buy goods and services and our recently published School Buying Strategy is designed to help schools save over £1bn a year by 2019-20 on non-staff spend.”