Even at best schools, kids on free school meals are performing worse than their peers

Mind the gap. Teaching via Shutterstock/michaeljung

It doesn’t matter if a school is outstanding or struggling, or if the majority of pupils are well-off or not – it’s likely that there will be a gap between how well poorer pupils perform compared to their peers. The low achievement and below average progress of pupils who are entitled to free school meals is an issue for every school in England – whether in inner city urban areas or leafy rural shires.

This “free school meals gap” – the difference in achievement between those children who are entitled to free school meals and those who are not – appears to exist in nearly all schools, according to forthcoming research I am presenting at the British Educational Research Association conference. Dealing with this problem is not a question of finding who to blame, but of recognising the importance of factors outside as well as inside the school gates.

For example, children who grow up in poverty may do less well because they have parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources and less well-placed to help them with their school work. This is not to say that schools should not do everything possible to close the gap. But it does indicate that a punitive approach on the part of government that sees the issue as one of “failing” schools misconstrues the nature of the problem.

Six grades difference

Overall, looking at pupil’s scores in the best eight exams they take, pupils on free school meals achieve nearly 40 fewer points (or 6 GCSE grades) lower compared to their better-off peers. They also make around 15 points (three GCSE grades) less progress between the age 11-16, once all other pupil and school background factors are controlled for. There is some school variation around these averages, but in over 95% of schools, pupils entitled to free school meals achieved lower grades than pupils who are not entitled.

The fact that this achievement gap is so consistent is an indication that idiosyncratic factors like variation in school policies, practices or effectiveness is probably not the main reason. Factors outside the school gates, in the home, wider community or among peer groups, are likely to be more influential. This has been noted in previous analyses of school effects in England (e.g. Strand, 2014).

Best schools still fall short

Data from schools inspectorate Ofsted can be used to illustrate the same point. In those schools judged by Ofsted as “outstanding” in 2012, 50% of pupils on free school meals achieved more than five A star to C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths. This was compared to just 25% in schools judged by Ofsted to be “inadequate”.

As the graph below shows, the odds of achieving these good grades are around the same in both good and poorly performing schools: 3 to 1 in outstanding schools, compared to 2.7 to 1 in inadequate schools.

Gap between free school meals pupils and peers, by Ofsted school rating.

On the face of it this is good news: schools can and do make a difference. But while the outstanding schools “raise the bar”, they do not “close the gap”. The gap between pupils entitled to free school meals and those who are not is identical in outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate schools. Even if we improved all “inadequate” schools to the level of those judged “outstanding” we would still have a free school meal gap – and of much the same size as we do today.

Policy implications

Approaches to school funding based on individual pupil data, such as the pupil premium grant, are important so that all schools receive additional funding for disadvantaged pupils – even if there are very few of them in schools in well-off areas. This is important since the data indicates that pupils entitled to free school meals do poorly in low deprivation as well as in high deprivation schools.

But by failing to account for any factors associated with pupil background or the socio-economic composition of the school, current accountability mechanisms such as performance tables and Ofsted inspections are biased against schools serving more disadvantaged intakes. This acts a disincentive for talented teachers and school leaders to work in the more challenging schools. It is important that schools are accountable for the progress of their students relative to schools with similar intakes – not just for “raw” attainment outcomes.