Measuring pupil disadvantage: The case for change

Caroline Sharp, Jenna Julius and Jude Hillary

08 March 2023

There is a large and long-standing gap in education outcomes between pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers in England. While it is crucial that there are well-targeted and effective strategies to help those who need it most, an unintended consequence of the Government’s roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) is that it will become increasingly difficult to understand how the performance of disadvantaged pupils is evolving over the next decade.

To discuss the implications and suggest the best ways forward, NFER convened a roundtable in 2022 of experts involved in policy and research on economic disadvantage and education. The roundtable discussion highlighted that action is needed to ensure we can continue to hold the Government to account for progress in reducing the gap and improving outcomes of pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Recommendations for policy

  • The Government should explore the feasibility of establishing a household income-based measure of disadvantage for the future.
  • The Government should explore the feasibility of introducing a ‘continuity measure’ of disadvantage from 2024 onwards. This would be based on the underlying eligibility criteria for free school meals and remove the effect of the transitional arrangements.
  • The Government should consider replacing the current rank-based disadvantaged pupils’ attainment gap measure with a simpler metric based on average point scores.