Failing the disadvantaged

By Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Director,

Friday 18 March 2022

This article was first published in ASCL’s Leader magazine on Friday 18 March 2022.

School leaders and their senior leadership teams need to have a good understanding of how their pupils are progressing, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It’s vital that there are well-targeted and effective strategies to offer help to those who need it most.

However, newly published research, "Investigating the changing landscape of pupil
disadvantage" by NFER shows that making accurate and informed decisions about how the average attainment of pupils most in need is evolving is going to become increasingly difficult.

This has significant implications for informed decision making on the best use of school funding to support disadvantaged pupils. Why is this happening, what does the research suggest can be done about this, and most importantly, what action can school leaders take?

Why are FSM-eligible pupil numbers increasing?
Even before Covid-19, the transitional arrangements introduced by the government to smooth the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) were significantly increasing the number of free school meal (FSM) eligible pupils. A pupil is eligible to claim FSM if their family is in receipt of Universal Credit and have annual net earnings of £7,400 or less, or if they qualify under legacy benefit schemes. Under the transitional arrangements, this eligibility remains throughout the duration of the child’s current education phase (primary or secondary)[1], even if their family circumstances improve.

The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified this trend with the number of FSM-eligible pupils increasing by almost a fifth between January 2020 and January 2021, at both primary and secondary levels. The pupils newly becoming FSM-eligible during the pandemic disproportionately came from more disadvantaged areas and from schools which were most disadvantaged (as defined by the fifth of schools with the highest FSM eligibility) before the pandemic. As such, these were pupils who might have already been considered in need of additional support but were not previously eligible.

The measurement of the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is based on defining ‘disadvantage’ as any pupil who has become eligible for FSM in the last six years (FSM6). These pupils are also considered to be eligible for the pupil premium. Consequently, any change to the eligibility for FSM impacts upon which pupils are eligible for the pupil premium, and the measurement of the attainment gap.

All other things being equal, the UC transitional arrangements will have a very important effect on FSM6 rates in future – especially for secondary schools. From 2023/24 onwards, it will lead to large annual increases in FSM6 rates due to almost all pupils who are eligible for FSM during the transitional period having their FSM6 status protected until Year 11, whereas they would have not been previously.

Why will this distort the attainment gap measure?

Recent and anticipated changes in FSM eligibility are set to significantly change the composition of the group of pupils considered to be ‘disadvantaged’ (and pupil premium) over the next decade.

Our research shows that the attainment of pupils who became newly eligible for FSM during the pandemic is, on average, much lower than that of non-disadvantaged pupils but higher (although much closer) than pupils who were already disadvantaged. Consequently, the changing profile of pupils who are classed as disadvantaged is likely to result in an apparent improvement in the average attainment of this group, even if the actual pupil attainment of those already eligible remains unchanged.

The changing profile of the disadvantaged group will make it almost impossible to tell whether apparent changes to the attainment gap are being driven by changes to the composition of the disadvantaged group, economic conditions, or genuine attainment progress.

How can the attainment gap be more accurately measured?

To target policy interventions towards the persistent gaps between young people from different backgrounds, a more meaningful set of measures, not just based on FSM but including it, is needed to ensure that we can understand how the average attainment of disadvantaged pupils is evolving over time.

Being able to accurately track any closure of the attainment gap must be an essential component of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. It therefore needs to take urgent action to establish reliable ways of measuring progress in disadvantaged pupils. We recommend that data which identifies the length of time a pupil has been disadvantaged should be collected or provided by the government (linked to attainment at pupil level). If the government makes better use of data it collects, this has the potential to make the existing process for identifying FSM eligibility much less cumbersome, inefficient and costly.

What does this mean for school leaders?

While it is already somewhat difficult for school leaders and governing bodies to understand how the attainment of different groups of pupils is evolving within a school or trust, these changes in composition will only make it harder over the next decade. Given the pandemic has particularly affected these pupils, this is a vital issue.

While the existing attainment gap measure remains in place, school leaders need to be particularly cautious in interpreting changes in their data relating to disadvantaged pupils. Where schools have seen big increases in their numbers of disadvantaged pupils, they may want to adjust their data to ensure they are making comparisons between more similar groups of pupils over time.

Our data shows that, on average, the longer a pupil has been disadvantaged, the lower their attainment. Moreover, pupils who have been eligible for FSM at any point in time, even if this is for over six years, have significantly lower attainment on average than those who have never been eligible for FSM. School leaders should therefore be mindful of the need to really understand and evaluate what the data shows in relation to attainment levels and what this looks like for different pupils, and they need to develop strategies with the most persistently disadvantaged in mind.

[1] As of when the transitional arrangements end (summer 2023 at the earliest).