Free meals measure won’t serve pupils well, say critics

15th July 2016 at 00:00
Experts warn planned distribution of £100m funding for heads is based on a poor proxy for deprivation

Academics and education directors have hit out at the Scottish government’s plans to use free school meals to divide £100 million among headteachers, arguing that this is an “old” and “discredited” proxy for poverty.

They have called for the distribution to come down “to much more than one single factor”.

Meanwhile, four of Scotland’s biggest local authorities have told TESS that the move is not about empowering local communities and closing the attainment gap – as the government argues – but rather about clawing back more power to the centre.

Local authorities, which will collect the tax to fund the initiative, are in the best position to distribute it thanks to their local knowledge, according to the Scottish Local Government Partnership (SLGP) – which broke away from local authorities’ body Cosla last year, and includes Aberdeen City, Glasgow City, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire.

The government, however, plans to take the £100 million it estimates will be raised through a new council tax – due to be introduced next year – and give it direct to schools based on the number of pupils signed up for free meals, in a Scottish version of England’s pupil premium (see box, “Blueprint for education”, right).

Jenny Laing, leader of Aberdeen City Council, and chair of the SLGP, said: “The public thinks, ‘Great, schools have more choice,’ but the reality is we have been devolving budgets to schools for years. If we were raising more, then more money would be passed out to schools.

“The government is making it look like it is empowering local communities when it is really pulling everything back to the centre.”

The danger with measures like free meals was that they did not “capture everybody in that deprived category,” Ms Laing added. “If you have got local knowledge, it’s easier to target that money at the areas of greatest need.”

Free school meal registration was an “old” and “discredited” proxy for poverty, said Maureen McKenna, president of education directors’ body ADES and Glasgow City Council’s director of education.

More sophisticated measures took into account other factors, such as mothers’ qualifications, in order to assess whether pupils’ were likely to underachieve at school. “Free school meals was done away with as a proxy for deprivation years ago,” she said.

Meanwhile Jim McCormick, associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pointed out that 6 per cent of schools had no free meal entitlement but every school had an attainment gap.

Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said that while high uptake of free meals was “an unambiguous reflection of deprivation”, the distribution of funding should come down “to more than one single factor”.

Ms Brock added: “There are sophisticated measures already available, such as the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which use a number of factors to identify the highest levels of deprivation. Using a combination of these factors would therefore make sense in establishing those in most need of support across the country, ensuring support is going to those families and areas most in need.”

Dr McCormick suggested a more sophisticated tool for reallocating the £100 million might take into account looked-after children, additional support needs (ASN) and English as an additional language.

‘Fit for purpose’

However, others argue that, while the free school meals measure may be a blunt instrument, it is fit for purpose.

Professor John McKendrick, an expert in child poverty at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “There are other reasons for the attainment gap but the big issue is the poverty gap – the fact that kids from disadvantaged areas are less likely to achieve higher academic educational outcomes.

“We could come up with a complex formula, factoring in children who are looked after and other issues. But I think free school meals is fit for purpose when it comes to what we are trying to do, which is rebalance the money.”

A Scottish government spokesman said that more than 95 per cent of schools would receive additional funding to support pupils from poorer backgrounds through the scheme.

He added: “We are aware that not all families who are eligible for free school meals claim them. We want all children to have access to this vital support and welcome suggestions from our local authority partners on how to increase take-up at a local level.”


Blueprint for education

First minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the plan to put an extra £100 million in the hands of headteachers at the launch of the SNP’s manifesto in April. Last month, the promise appeared in education secretary John Swinney’s blueprint for Scottish education.

The scheme is essentially a Scottish version of the pupil premium in England, which involves heads receiving additional funding for every pupil claiming free school meals.

A complication with using this measure in Scotland is that free meals were extended to all pupils in P1-3 last year (see figures, above left). Registration statistics are now published with the disclaimer that they are “no longer a reliable measure” of school-level deprivation.

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