Does ‘the gap’ matter to children eligible for free school meals?

Rebecca Allen

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?

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15 comments on “Does ‘the gap’ matter to children eligible for free school meals?
  1. Nigel Bishop says:

    Having read widely on the subject of Pupil Premium recently, as well as delivering training and consultancy in this area, chiefly in primary schools, it is my undertsanding that both the DfE and Ofsted are increasingly clear on the point that Pupil Premium funding is to be spent only on eligible pupils. School leaders, including governors of course, are accountable for how the funding in spent, and for ensuring it is being used effectively, even when disaggregation of the impact of an array of interventions on one pupil, or a group of children, is extremely hard to evaluate in practice. Whilst there might not be an actual ‘ring fence’ in David Laws’ eyes, there is very much an implied one in the Ofsted literature, especially the very comprehensive report published in January on what effective use of the Pupil Premium looks like, and presumably therefore what inspectors will expect to see in schools during the current round of inspections.
    The report is accompanied by recommmended management tools for school leaders, and can be downloaded from the Ofsted publications page, or alternatively from my own website.
    Like you Rebecca I approve of what the Pupil Premium seeks to do, whilst also feeling that the duty to make practical sense of ideas dreamt up by politicians without adequate consultation seems to be one that education professionals are increasingly being asked to shoulder. This comes unfortunately on top of the already heavy burden that many of them bear in sustaining their enthusiasm and commitment in what is becoming an oppressive and relentless system these days. I’m thoroughly in favour of aspiration, but does anyone really believe that young minds will develop effectively in medium that is more and more dominated by targets and drenched with fear?

  2. Denis Mongon says:

    This question about how to spend the Pupil Premium is really important. The proposal that it should always and only be spent directly on the students who trigger the Premium, now officially described as ‘disadvantaged’ to reflect that the criteria are wider than fsm, makes no sense. Rebecca is right to say that fsm student don’t have distinctive needs. There is no magic answer for raising their attainment. So, for example, good teachers make a bigger difference for students from low income families (and those with sen by the way) so in some cases it would be a good idea to spend the premium on overall professional development. The national gap remains too large and needs to be contested but it will be eroded faster by high quality provision for every student than by specific projects for particular groups (whose impact often evaporates over time anyway)

  3. behrfacts says:

    I agree with de-coupling the focus from FSM children only. It is not the only measure of relative deprivation in a school/community and of course not all parents decide to register for it due to a combination of reasons. Finally, as you say, targets are there to be got around in many cases especially if there are too simplistic accountability drivers in place – we don’t yet know the primary ones, though there is some hope from secondary. Just watching today’s Ed Cttee session with Ofqual on the use of KS2 data in ‘comparable outcomes’ (which the Welsh Board disputes) confirms that this is a complex area with different views even amongst the experts.

  4. Will says:

    I am fascinated by this debate as it is, statistically, an issue in my school. I am particularly interested in the performance of FSM/Non-FSM in schools that have a relatively small population of FSM students (I work in a school that has 9% under the old measure. 19% with the 6 year rule). The problem is more pressing in my school as the non-FSM come from quite an affluent socio-economic background. The FSM students, therefore, are almost double-deprived as they gap between them and the non-FSM is huge. The DfE publication ‘Pockets of Poverty’ from many years ago was particularly illuminating; but now quite old. The contention is that in schools with small pockets of FSM pupils, it is in many ways more challenging to address achievement, engagement et al as they, often, stand out from the rest of the populace. We are working so hard to raise the achievement of some of these students who are coming to us with very low levels of literacy and numeracy and exhibiting challenging behaviours (pastoral support, curriculum modification and personalised support, quick intervention on entry, parental enegagement). It’s working; but the gap is only marginally closing. HMI seem disinterested and/or dismissive of our argument about the particular challenges that our school has with the gap. Does anybody out there have any similar experiences to us? Are there any national datasets with regards to the gaps in schools with smaller FSM cohorts? Has anyone anyway practical tips to support a school like ours? Would be interested to hear as it is the one key area for improvement in an otherwise outstanding school.

  5. I agree with this analysis. The self-selection on FSM is a major flaw in the thinking. Ward-level IDAQI measures might be more appropriate for allocating Pupil Premium. As I have written in my blog it is likely that gaps get bigger if all students are making progress. If we’re serious about narrowing the gap, a good case could be made for investing all the PP money into Early Years and Pre-School. Sadly, this is too much of a long game to withstand the short-termism of the policy machinery.

  6. steve says:

    We wrote to David Laws with a very specific question – roughly …

    “We’ve looked at the evidence from, amongst others, the Sutton Trust about which expenditure choices give the best value for money – the difficulty is that the ‘best value’ choices actually raise attainment for all (eg. improving the quality of teacher feedback) – there is no evidence that the impact is great on PP eligable students so no gap closing effect.

    Considering this – would the DfE rather we spent the money on:

    a) Improving teacher feedback resulting in all students’ results going up by, say, 5% but the gap, therefore, not closing.

    b) A particular project that might increase the results of the PP eligible students by 3% (a smaller increase than in option a) but which would see the gap close.”

    The response was that the money was aimed at closing the gap but it was for us to decide how to do that! Ie. He got pretty close to saying (b) was better even though the PP eligible students would make smaller gains!

    Scary that the gap closing is, seemingly, a greater priroity than increasing their actual level of achievement!

    How about I reduce the gap to zero by, somehow, deflating the results of the non-eligible students! I’d probably get a letter congratulating my school on it’s impact rather than the letter we got this year saying “Well done – all your students exceeded national average as did your PP cohort alone. BUT your gap is too big – sort it out!”.

    We had 10 (ten) PP eligable students last year – had 1 got a C and not a D in his English then our gap would have fallen by 10%. Scary that the DfE have little idea about statistical significance!

  7. Jenny says:

    Hello, I am a governor at an extremely diverse (ethnically and socio-economically) school in London. Recently I attended some training organised by my local authority that touched, among other things, on the attainment gap. We were told that although PP funding is allocated according to FSM eligibility, the gap we need to close is not necessarily that between FSM and non-FSM pupils. It’s up to the school to look at the gap between its average attainers and its lowest 20 per cent, then to decide how to address the problems of that particular demographic. In the case of my school, for example, the gap appears much wider between BME and white pupils than between FSM and non-FSM ones. In which case, the trainer seemed to be saying, we should be looking at what our school can be doing better for its BME children. This seems to me to make sense, but doesn’t correlate with what people are saying about PP being ring-fenced for FSM pupils only. Can any other readers help me with this? Many thanks.

  8. Nigel Bishop says:

    Jenny might find that it is possible to rob ‘Peter to pay Paul’, and still meet the Ofsted criteria for spending FSM funding only on FSM Ever6 pupils. It might be possible to identify some spending on these children that is coming from the general school budget, in which case some of the increasing FSM allocation (£900 per pupil for 2013-14) could be used to fund this provision. That would then release some general funding to target at under-achievement identified in the BME group. You’ve probably thought of this already, but it’s definitely something that has come up as a suggestion when I’ve been talking to headteachers nationally.

  9. Grant says:

    I’m a deputy headteacher in a school in West Cumbria. I have had many discussions with the head and governors about use of ppm and how it impacts on a school like ours. We have up to 50% of our pupils on PPM (it fluctuates year on year – it was 50% last year, 35 % this and due to be 55% next year). This brings really tough questions on the sort of things we choose to spend PPM on – basically how do you provide opportunities to half the children but not the other half? And why would you want to?
    Like many schools, some of our PPMs are higher attainers, making great progress, but generally across the school they are behind their peers and making slower progress. One use of PPM has been to employ a HLTA to work in small groups of PPM children on immediate targets based on weekly assessments in class.

  10. Susan cousin says:

    It is not just teaching and the gaining of maths and English skills that should be the focus in these discussions. The social attainment gap is real, large and important and some of this is due to the social capital gained from being part of a family who regularly goes to ballet/theatre/concerts, pays for music lessons, eats out and experiences a wealth of cultural advantages which then translate into better performance at school by having the cultural references to understand the canon of English literature and history, debates about global warming, etc. is it then equally important to spend the PPG on music lessons and theatre and museum visits? And keep a small fund as well for those you can’t pay for from PPG because they’re not on the list, but who you know wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go?

  11. […] non-FSM group is also not homogeneous as Becky Allen points out. FSM is a ‘binary’ yes/no measure, unlike something like IDACI which is a […]

  12. […] meals (FSM) has traditionally been used in education research as a proxy for poverty. It has its limitations of course: not all those who may be eligible choose to claim for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, […]

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