David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools, has been making a series of speeches over the past month about “closing the gap” in the attainment between pupils from deprived and more affluent backgrounds. Yesterday, he warned that schools should not be judged as outstanding by Ofsted if they failed to close the gap, a goal that sounds fair and even laudable in principle, but I believe is rather unfair in practice.
The “gap” is the difference in GCSE achievement between the average for pupils who are eligible for free school meals and the average for those who are not. Pupils eligible for free school meals have similar characteristics across schools since they all come from families claiming some sort of benefit. The problem is that the background of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) will vary considerably across schools, since the group includes both those with bankers and with cleaners as parents.
A school may substantially narrow the gap by working hard to improve the attainment of their most deprived children, or through the accident of the characteristics of their non- eligible children. I have written before that very deprived schools tend to have very small gaps, a quirk I first spotted as a governor of a school that was struggling to produce strong academic results but was very proud that its FSM gap was zero. All the students at the school came from low income families living on a very large and universally deprived council estate. Some of the families happened to claim benefits that made them eligible for free school meals (not necessarily the poorest), others didn’t or couldn’t. Not surprisingly, the GCSE performance of the FSM and non-FSM pupils in this school were no different, on average, because these pupils were no different in their social or educational background. Nothing the school was doing contributed to this supposed “success” in “closing the gap”.
Social class disadvantage is an important national policy problem but I do not believe that schools should be deciding policies based on the size of their FSM attainment gap. What matters to children from low-income families is that a school enables them to achieve a qualification to get on in life. If a low-income student gets a low quality education from a school, it is little consolation or use for them to learn that the school served the higher income students equally poorly (i.e. the school’s “gap” was small).
As it turns out, great schools tend to be great schools for all children in the school – the statistical correlation between who does well for FSM children and who does well for non-FSM children is very high. Moreover, schools can make a difference to the life chances of FSM children – there are huge differences in attainment for these children across schools, far larger than there are for children from wealthy backgrounds who do pretty well in all schools.
Should the pupil premium be used exclusively for FSM children?
In an earlier speech David Laws threatened to ring fence the pupil premium money to force schools to spend it on their FSM pupils, rather than throwing it into the general pot of schools money. (The pupil premium is the policy tool by which schools are supposed to “close the gap”). I worry about this type of restriction in spending on certain activities, not least because the FSM children are not always from the poorest families in the school – the very act of claiming benefits means some family income leapfrogs those of others that work. More practically, students eligible for free school meals are not segregated into special classrooms, so it is rather difficult to spend the pupil premium on important things such as teaching and learning without the benefits spilling over to other children who sit in the classroom with them.
Free school meals children do not have educational needs that are unique or particularly distinctive. Like other children, excellent teaching and support for their learning is a good place to start. I do not deny that social deprivation in the home spills into schooling and it is clearly possible to target this via attendance incentives, breakfast clubs, homework clubs and tutoring support. But I believe schools would find it morally and emotionally difficult to exclude a child who is not on FSM from accessing these schemes if they could clearly benefit from them.
I hope that my very specific criticisms of an admirable policy do not detract from the urgency of understanding and reducing the size of social class gaps in educational achievement in England. Schools must engage in the evidence on resourcing and pupil achievement and make careful, deliberate budget decisions that improve pupil learning, particularly for those who are most educationally disadvantaged in their school. This may mean spending the pupil premium to retain the best teachers, introduce policies to improve teaching practice or even an “approved” activity targeted very specifically on more deprived children in the school.
However, I suspect that in trying to support the attainment of FSM-eligible children, a school might inadvertently help those not eligible too. Is this such a bad outcome? And if not, why do we use a “gap” metric that “punishes” a school for improving the attainment of those not eligible, as much as it does allowing the attainment of more deprived children to fall behind?