Recent figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that boys eligible for free school meals have been increasing their achievements at GCSE faster than their classmates who pay. Between 2002 and 2008, the percentage of boys eligible for free school meals (FSM) who gained five A*-C GCSEs or their equivalents, increased from 18.8 per cent of the group to 35.4 per cent.
Their paying compatriots who made the grade only increased by 14.3 percentage points to 62.5 per cent over the same period. Interestingly, the best result was achieved by the group whose FSM status was unknown, where the percentage gaining the five A*-C outcome increased by more than 22 percentage points to 46.9 per cent, almost doubling the 24.8 per cent figure this group achieved in 2002. Among girls, the gains recorded by groups with FSM pupils were also higher than for those without FSM, although the latter group of girls still maintained their supremacy, with 71.6 per cent meeting the benchmark five A*-Cs.
In the current climate, these figures may be of less value to policymakers in the future. After a period when the number of FSM pupils fell, from 15.8 per cent of secondary pupils in 200001 to 13.1 per cent in 200708, the percentage will have risen sharply. London was already the region with the highest percentage and is likely to be worst hit by recession. In the past, FSM figures have been used as a proxy for deprivation. While still of some use, during a recession FSM will not be an easy way to pinpoint the most deprived families.
John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.