THE pupils sit quietly with an ice cube cupped in their hands.

As the ice melts they are encouraged to focus their thoughts on the sensations they feel, from the smooth surface of the cube to the water.

Thoughts then turn towards the tingling or numbness as their hands get colder and they are asked if it is uncomfortable and whether they can cope with the discomfort by concentrating their minds on something else.

The exercise by pupils at St Margaret’s Primary School, in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, is just one example from an initiative known as mindfulness which helps pupils take control of their thoughts and feelings.

In a chaotic world with myriad distractions being calm or able to concentrate are precious commodities, particularly for pupils growing up in poverty who may experience disruption in the home.

Read more: What is PEF money being spent on?

Gillian Miller, headteacher at St Margaret’s, where 70 per cent of pupils live in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland, said mindfulness had made a significant difference both to pupil behaviour and their academic achievements.

The training for the scheme for two staff members has been funded from the Scottish Government's Pupil Equity Fund (PEF), which targets additional money at schools facing issues of deprivation.

St Margaret's has spent its annual £80,000 allocation on a number of measures including a full-time specialist PE teacher to boost pupils' health and fitness, as well as trips to major sporting events such as football games and athletics competitions to provide new experiences.

Ms Miller said: "I thought the money was an amazing opportunity to be able to do really good things in the school and for the staff to work together to decide what we needed.

"We have given the children swimming lessons and taken them to football games, netball matches and the European athletics championship. These are things the children may not otherwise have had an opportunity to do.

"One of the big success stories has been the mindfulness training which helps children regulate their emotions, be calm and kind and build resilience. If we can develop those aspects then it gives them the skills to unlock other aspects of the curriculum such as literacy and numeracy."

The £120 million PEF fund was unveiled in 2017 to help address the poverty-related school attainment gap, which leaves poorer pupils lagging behind their wealthier peers.

Read more: Schools 'plugging gaps' with PEF funding

Allocations are based on the number of pupils eligible for free school meals, with schools receiving around £1,200 per pupil. While 95 per cent of all schools get some funding amounts can vary from nearly £400,000 for a large secondary in Glasgow to just over £1,000.

While the money is to be spent at the discretion of headteachers, the Scottish Government has issued guidance which stipulates parents and pupils should also be involved.

The other stipulations are that funding should be used to introduce something new, that it should not be spent on plugging gaps created by cuts and that initiatives should be supported by evidence.

The Scottish Government believes the fund, now moving into its third year, is as much about empowering school communities as it is about the attainment gap. That follows concerns that not all local authorities are making as much progress on closing the attainment gap as others, with some preventing headteachers from taking the risks ministers believe is required to make a difference.

John Swinney, the Education Secretary, told the Herald on Sunday he introduced PEF to ensure money was in the hands of those who know pupils best.

"Giving schools the power to choose where to target support and decide what will make a real difference to their communities means the life chances of our young people can be significantly improved,” he said.

“Too often we hear the accusation that Scottish education lacks creativity and innovation. PEF proves that argument entirely wrong. Empowered teachers, given the right resources and appropriate support, are making a massive difference in our classrooms and are transforming lives."

Gayle Gorman, chief executive of schools inspectorate and curriculum body Education Scotland, said the way headteachers were using the money is beginning to make a difference.

Because the money is given direct to schools and is not micro-managed by councils there have been accusations of a lack of accountability over where the public pound is being spent and how effectively it is being used.

Education Scotland has a crucial role in monitoring the fund and now has a number of resources to help schools including published guidance and a website promoting and explaining schemes that are proving effective. Education Scotland also operates a network of attainment advisers working locally, nationally and regionally to discuss choices and share what works elsewhere.

Read more: Row as campus cops paid for by PEF funding

Ms Gorman said there had already been a change from spending money on very traditional literacy and numeracy schemes to more advanced approaches which look at the health and happiness of children, the involvement of their families and whether or not they have had sufficient life experiences. Other approaches develop the skills of teachers to identify and support children living in poverty.

"Over time, school staff have become more confident about what they want to spend the money on and are really getting to know their children and thinking about what would help them," she said.

"We have to ensure a child is ready for learning and they need to feel good about themselves in order to engage at school so the more we can support children and their families the better."

There are however words of caution from Ms Gorman given that a plethora of private companies are now circling schools with the next PEF-ready quick fix available at a price.

"There are companies and agencies that are looking at this funding and thinking they have something to offer and we are saying to schools to focus on evidence of what works,” said Ms Gorman.

"Innovate and be creative, but be wary of something that promises all things to all people because there is very little in education that can do that. If there was a magic solution we would be telling Scotland about it."

Some of the strongest support for PEF has come, not surprisingly, from secondary headteachers keen to take more control over their budgets at a time of wider cuts.

Read more: Attainment gap could take years to close

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders' Scotland, which represents the secondary sector, said his members felt PEF provided schools with flexibility to target resources at particular issues, but the experience of the past two years has thrown up difficulties.

It is generally understood the key to closing the attainment gap lies in the employment of high quality staff, but Mr Thewliss said schools often found difficulties hiring the people they needed because the long-term future of the scheme is not guaranteed beyond the next Holyrood election.

"Challenges arise in being able to get staff and particularly staff with specific skill sets. This is made more difficult through the uncertainty of the long term availability and sustainability of PEF funding,” he warned.

"People are unwilling to commit to temporary posts or will take the opportunity to move to a permanent post elsewhere as one becomes available.”

Mr Thewliss sees another fundamental concern in the fact PEF is being allocated at a time of wider cuts, with education budgets at council level seeing year on year reductions.

In recent months reports suggested Glasgow wanted to use PEF funding to pay for janitors while in the first year of the scheme North Lanarkshire intended the money to be used to pay for classroom assistants who would otherwise have lost their jobs.

“There are issues with the pressure on schools to use PEF money to make up for deficiencies in core funding. We see this as an ongoing and, in fact, growing issue," said Mr Thewliss.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, which represents the primary sector, agrees. He also argues PEF had created an additional workload for school leaders who “don’t want to be accountants”.

“The majority of heads are supportive of PEF, but many are wary because it has come at a time when cuts to core staffing and budgets are the norm,” he said.

"Headteachers can find themselves in a position where PEF is used to maintain the status quo rather than provide genuine additionally.”

Teaching unions are also concerned about whether PEF is genuinely providing extra money or is simply window dressing for a government hamstrung by austerity budgets.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary School Teachers' Association, said PEF was often "shoring up what has been lost."

"All schools welcome additional money to support disadvantaged pupils, but in many cases the austerity cuts over a number of years have impacted on these pupils the most,” he said.

"In many cases the PEF money doesn’t cover what has been lost. There is a need that all schools have the basics first before looking at additional funds."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland said he fully supported the government’s aims, but the union retained concerns over the direct funding method deployed.

Earlier this year it emerged hundreds of new teachers employed through attainment gap funding were only on temporary contracts, raising fears over job security and the long-term effectiveness of the project.

"We have serious concerns over the temporary nature of many teaching posts funded through PEF. These posts, valuable though they are, are short-term only and so not guaranteed to be retained in future years,” he said.

The tension between core funding and PEF is also an issue for councils, who see the scheme as a form of top-slicing of already squeezed budgets.

A spokesman for council umbrella body Cosla said earlier this year that PEF gave neither councils nor employees the security they needed.

"It is short term funding which is only guaranteed until the end of this parliament and yet the services it provides have become an essential and core component of our work in improving attainment and closing the attainment gap," said a spokesman.

There are grumbles too from parents. A poll by parent body Connect found families were not routinely being consulted about the use of PEF despite the guidelines.

Joanna Murphy, chairwoman of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said: "We don’t see much evidence of PEF working to raise attainment by strengthening school communities. PEF requires more meaningful dialogue to take place with parents.”

Poverty specialist Professor Chris Chapman, from Glasgow University, acknowledges the concerns, but believes PEF is a welcome development.

However, he argues it should not be a "free for all" and believes current uncertainties over how the money is being spent need to be addressed.

"PEF is a really important mechanism in shifting the ownership of reform towards those who make the most difference to the education of our children,” he said.

"However, the system requires checks and balances. Inevitably as this new way of working beds in there will be variations in how effectively the resource is used.

"In order to reduce these variations it is important we learn the lessons from both the successes and the failures. This process could be accelerated by an independent evaluation of the initiative."