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Poverty and free meals go together

Derek Thompson, the head of Westhill Academy in Aberdeenshire, and Linda Croxford of Edinburgh University are wrong to claim that Keith Topping's use of free school meals in his analysis of exam results is based on uptake (TESS, January 23).

The free meal measure given on the Scottish Executive Education Department's website is entitlement, not uptake, and it is entitlement that Professor Topping used.

As someone working in Inverclyde, it might be thought that I would want such an approach validated since we came second top in the revised ranking of education authorities.

However, I also have problems with Professor Topping's method although not with using free meals per se. I believe that using free meals to illuminate differences between similar schools is better than looking at differences between schools based on national averages. The use of free meals or other comparators does not necessarily provide answers but it does help to raise questions.

Data on the HMIE website now provides secondary schools with information about their own SQA attainment in comparison with 20 other similar schools using free meals to define similarity. And, as reported in The TESScotland, almost everyone who saw the school data when it was published on the SEED website agreed that it was helpful to have a context set using free meal entitlement.

Dr Croxford said that free meals was a "lousy measure" and that it had nothing to do with levels of poverty. Well I am afraid this is wrong as well. Data from the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics website shows that there is a very high correlation between the number of children aged 5-10 in families receiving income support in 2000 and the number of children in primary schools who were entitled to free meals in January 2000. I do not think that the link between poverty and free meals could be clearer.

As Dr Croxford indicates, many people may not apply for free meals due to stigma or whatever. However, I think she would agree that most people are likely to apply for a clothing grant - no stigma, cash in hand, more or less. This information is used by authorities to supplement free meal registrations to get closer to the underlying entitlement.

What does this then mean? If we accept that the argument put forward by Mr Thompson and Dr Croxford is invalid, does this mean we should accept Professor Topping's "league" table? I would say a qualified no and point to Professor Topping's own caveats.

However, it does mean that free meals can be helpful to illuminate differences between schools and we should continue to investigate these differences. We should not rubbish the use of free meals per se because we do not like the outcome of a particular method of analysis, and we should certainly not return to making invidious comparisons based on national averages.

Ron Mitchell Research and development officer, Inverclyde Council

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