Flaws in the system: Influx of new FSM pupils causes attainment gap headache

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pandemic poverty: Covid-19 has seen the number of FSM eligible pupils increasing by almost 300,000 between January 2020 and 2021 (Image: Adobe Stock)

Flaws in how we measure the eligibility and attainment of disadvantaged pupils must be ironed out if we are to properly support these young people.

Researchers have warned that recent and anticipated changes to eligibility for free school meals (FSM) will make it “almost impossible” to accurately track our progress in closing attainment gaps in the years to come.

A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (Julius & Ghosh, 2022) says that huge numbers of newly eligible children are skewing the attainment figures and making it difficult to judge our true impact on the attainment gap.

The last few years have seen a notable increase in the number of FSM pupils.

In January 2017, 663,400 primary-age pupils and 414,300 secondary students were FSM-eligible. These figures now stand at just over one million primary pupils and 660,500 secondary students.

The research finds that the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a sharp increase in the number of families in poverty, with the number of FSM eligible pupils increasing by almost 300,000 between January 2020 and 2021.

As well as rising poverty levels and the impact of the pandemic, the rise in eligibility is also due to transitional arrangements for the roll-out of Universal Credit.

Since April 2018, all pupils whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit and have annual net earnings of £7,400 or less are eligible to claim for FSM. Transition arrangements mean any pupil eligible for FSM at any point from April 2018 until the end of the Universal Credit roll-out (summer 2023 at the earliest) would retain eligibility.

The key point made by the researchers is that while these newly eligible FSM pupils are largely drawn from the most disadvantaged areas, it still changes the composition of the disadvantage group.

This is because, on average, even though these newly FSM eligible pupils have significantly lower attainment compared to their peers, they have slightly higher attainment relative to those who are already eligible.

The report warns: “The changing profile of pupils who are disadvantaged is likely to result in an apparent improvement in the average attainment of this group, which will make it very difficult to interpret what might be driving any changes in the attainment gap over time.”

It also warns that due to the Universal Credit transitional arrangements, it will no longer be possible to identify how persistently disadvantaged pupils are based on their underlying family circumstances.

Elsewhere, the report finds that the Pupil Premium has not been successful at ensuring funding for disadvantaged pupils is protected over time. It says that if funding had kept pace with inflation since 2014/15, then primary and secondary schools would today be receiving £160 and £127 more per eligible pupil.

Currently schools get £1,345 for every primary-age pupil and £955 for every secondary pupil and the planned 2.7 per cent increase in Pupil Premium in 2022/23 “will only maintain the Pupil Premium at its current levels, rather than restore any previous declines”.

The researchers also report that the 300,000 FSM pupils who have become newly eligible during the pandemic are more likely to be from an ethnic minority group and have English as an additional language compared to pupils who were already eligible for FSM.

The report is calling on the government to “urgently explore the development of a new set of measures to better understand and interpret the evolution of attainment among disadvantaged pupils and their peers”.

It also wants to see a commitment to increasing the Pupil Premium in line with school-level inflation over the next five years and a new “annual statement” from the DfE which would “review how funding is being targeted towards disadvantaged pupils” including via the Pupil Premium and the National Funding Formula.

Senior economist at NFER and research co-author Jenna Julius said: “While changes in the attainment gap are already subject to potential misinterpretation, it is going to become increasingly difficult to understand how the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is evolving over time.

“If we want to monitor changes in attainment between young people from different backgrounds in future and develop policies to address these, policy-makers should urgently explore the development of a basket of measures to better understand and interpret the evolution of attainment among disadvantaged pupils in the coming years.”

Commenting on the report, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “While this report is seemingly about arcane data processes, there is a really important issue here. We have to be able to track the progress of disadvantaged youngsters so that we are able to put in place the right support.

“Being able to track the progress of disadvantaged youngsters is a key element in boosting social justice. Therefore, there really does need to be a fresh look at how we keep track of disadvantage in the education system, backed with sufficient support through the Pupil Premium.

“The government must recognise the flaws that the NFER has identified and undertake an urgent review of free school meals eligibility and the Pupil Premium to ensure disadvantage among children and young people is correctly identified and there is sufficient funding to meet the needs of this rapidly-expanding group.”

  • Julius & Ghosh: Investigating the changing landscape of pupil disadvantage, NFER, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3tFUbx1

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