Free schools meals measure masks north-south divide in pupil poverty

5th September 2017 at 14:20
free school meals impact different over time
Research finds that secondaries in the north-east, which have been deemed relatively ineffective, have more longer-term poor pupils than those in the south

New research has uncovered stark differences between schools’ experiences of free school meal pupils in different parts of the country.

The research by Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University, and Nadia Siddiqui, research fellow at Durham University, shows that the length of time a pupil is eligible for free school meals can have a dramatic impact on their attainment and progress.

Professor Gorard said the analysis of 2015 data from the national pupil database shows that the free school meals label does not adequately explain the differences between children who have been on free school meals for differing amounts of time.

“The label FSM or not does not capture the true picture,” Professor Gorard is due to say in a presentation at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) annual conference today. “There is a clear negative gradient linking the number of years a child is known to have been poor and their school attainment. Those students who have been FSM-eligible for their entire school career have the worst outcomes. They make the least progress between any two stages at school.”

Pupils who have never been on free school meals achieved an average of 332 points at the end of key stage 4 (where a GCSE ‘C’ grade is worth 40 points) in 2015. Pupils who had been eligible for free school meals for one year achieved an average of 288 points and for those eligible for 10 years the average was 238, the research found.

Value-added scores – which measure progress – showed a similar pattern, with the only positive value added score being for those students who had never been on free school meals.

Professor Gorard said taking the longevity of poverty into account explained many “real-life puzzles” – pointing out that grammar schools not only take fewer free-school meal pupils but fewer long-term free school meal pupils than the non-selective schools in their areas and that secondary schools in the north-east, which have been deemed relatively ineffective, in fact, have more longer-term poor pupils than those in the south.

The research shows that by key stage 4, pupils in grammar schools have claimed free school meals for an average of 0.3 years compared to 1.6 years for all pupils in non-grammar schools in selective areas. When looking only at those claiming free school meals, the key stage 4 pupils in grammar schools were eligible for 5.1 years on average, compared to 6.8 years for those FSM pupils in non-grammar schools in selective areas.

The research also shows that by key stage 4, the average time that free school meal pupils have been eligible for free school meals ranges from six months in Wokingham to 3.4 years in Manchester.

Professor Gorard said: “I would advocate they should use this [length of time] for allocating pupil premium. Those children who have been on free school meals for a longer time will be harder to deal with, on average, but there is a flat fee whether a pupil was on free school meals for a year, several years ago, or whether they have been on eligible for every year of their life. I’m not sure that’s right.”

The research is based on an ongoing ESRC-funded study.

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