Children are eligible for Free School Meals if their parents receive certain benefits. Eligibility for Free School Meals has long been used as a proxy indicator of socio-economic status; if a child receives Free School Meals, they are likely to be socio-economically deprived in comparison to children who do not. As sociologists of education will tell you, socio-economic status (some of us even dare use the word ‘class’) shapes educational attainment. A lifetime ago, employed by an LEA, I would benchmark schools Key Stage results according to ‘FSM eligibility’, so that we could claim to be comparing the results of schools with a similar pupil intake.
The FSM statistics are not without controversy. To what extent can this statistic reliably measure socio-economic status?
One of the problems with the ‘FSM eligibility’ statistics is that, despite the title, the figure measures claimants of Free School Meals. There is a big difference between eligibility and the claiming of benefits entitled because of that eligibility. Benefits go left unclaimed.
The significance of all this? The Pupil Premium, which is additional money which the Government has pledged to benefit the education of “deprived children”. It will be allocated to schools’ budgets according to the number of children in receipt of FSM. Middlesbrough, in the North East of England has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and as such you would expect their to be a significant number of children eligible for Free School Meals. Middlesbrough Council is concerned that as many as 3000 children who are eligible are not receiving this benefit. It amounts to additional £1.1 million in Pupil Premium funding for Middlesbrough schools. They have urged eligible parents to complete a form in order to claim their entitlement. That is the way Free School Meals works, a parent has to apply for it, it is not automatic. In Middlesbrough, there are, at present approximately 6000 children already in receipt of Free School Meals. So, in other words, around one-third of parents have not claimed this benefit. Who knows what the real eligibility figure is if this level of non claiming is repeated in other socio-economically deprived areas. The Government has set aside £2.5 billion a year for the Pupil Premium. Will it be enough?
1 There have many discussions on this. One such is by Hobbs and Vignoles, published by the LSE, available here.