04/10/2012 Education Psychology
DOI: 10.1080/01411926.2011.608118 SemanticScholar ID: 144309084 MAG: 2066305130

Who Is Eligible for Free School Meals? Characterising Free School Meals as a Measure of Disadvantage in England.

Publication Summary

This paper presents a description of the background characteristics and attainment profile of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in England, and of those missing a value for this variable. Free school meal eligibility is a measure of low parental income, widely used in social policy research as an individual indicator of potential disadvantage. It is routinely treated as context for judging both individual and school-level attainment, as an indicator of school composition, and has been proposed as the basis for the pupil premium funding policy for schools. Knowledge of the quality, reach and limitations of FSM as an indicator is therefore fundamental to accurate decision-making in a number of important areas. This paper uses a national dataset of all pupils (PLASC) for 2007. It looks at the relationship between different indicators of pupil background and attainment to help decide how useful FSM remains in relation to its suggested alternatives, and how to handle the crucial question of missing data and to describe more fully than previously the national picture of who is eligible for free school meals. The results show that, while the distinction between take-up and eligibility has been eroded, FSM remains a useful and clear stratifying variable for pupil attainment patterns in school, linked to type of school attended, school mobility, living in care, special needs, first language and minority ethnic group. The pupils missing FSM values fall into two groups, based largely on their type of school and how long they have been there. One group attends fee-paying schools and is most similar to non-FSM pupils elsewhere and could be aggregated with them in future analyses that do not want to omit them. The remaining missing FSM pupils form a deprived and perhaps super-deprived group. These should not be omitted, nor assumed to be like non-FSM pupils, as currently happens in official school performance figures in England in a way that disadvantages schools with very deprived intakes. The proposal here is that missing FSM pupils in state-funded institutions should be treated in future as a third distinct group. If these issues about missing data are resolved, and other limitations accepted, FSM remains a better indicator of low socioeconomic status than the current alternatives discussed in the paper.

CAER Authors

Avatar Image for Stephen Gorard

Prof. Stephen Gorard

University of Durham - Professor in the School of Education

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