A new report by NFER warns that recent and anticipated changes to free school meal (FSM) eligibility will make it ‘almost impossible’ to track the attainment of disadvantaged pupils relative to their non-disadvantaged peers over the next decade.
The research shows how the transitional arrangements introduced by the Government to smooth the roll out of Universal Credit are significantly increasing the number of FSM eligible pupils. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified this trend.
While these newly eligible FSM pupils are largely drawn from the most disadvantaged areas, this will still change 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 non-disadvantaged peers, they have slightly higher attainment relative to those who are already eligible. This is likely to pull the average attainment for the whole disadvantage group upwards making it almost impossible to tell whether apparent changes to the attainment gap are being driven by changes to the composition of the disadvantage group, economic conditions or genuine attainment changes.
Senior economist Jenna Julius explains: “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, policymakers 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.”
The report also found:
- 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.
- The pupils who became newly FSM eligible during the pandemic were disproportionately from more disadvantaged areas, and from schools which were most disadvantaged before the pandemic.
- These pupils were also more likely to be from an ethnic minority group and have English as an additional language compared to both pupils who were already eligible for FSM, and pupils who were not eligible for FSM in either January 2020 or January 2021.
- There is a case for targeting more support towards the most persistently disadvantaged pupils. However, due to Universal Credit transitional arrangements, it will no longer be possible to identify how persistently disadvantaged pupils are based on their underlying family circumstances.
- The Pupil Premium grant has not been successful at ensuring that funding for disadvantaged pupils is protected over time. If the PP grant had kept in-line with inflation since 2014/15, then primary and secondary schools would be receiving £160 and £127 more per PP pupil today, compared to what they actually receive[i].
The report recommends:
- The Government urgently explores the development of a new set of measures to better understand and interpret the evolution of attainment among disadvantaged pupils and their peers.
- The Government commits to increasing the pupil premium in line with school-level inflation over the next five years, as part of a longer-term commitment to build back better and support social mobility as we emerge from the pandemic.
- The Government commits to producing an annual statement reviewing how funding is being targeted towards disadvantaged pupils, through the pupil premium grant, funding for deprivation provided through the National Funding Formula and other funding sources
[i] The Government’s 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.