Isnt it time to change this crude measure for deprivation?


The proportion of pupils, around 80,000, receiving Free School Meals (FSM) has long been used as the main indicator for deprivation.

However, experts have long considered it too crude a measure to give an accurate picture as it is based on just one income-based variable. FSM is not a comprehensive measure as a significant number of those eligible do not sign up either because they do not want school food or more often because of the stigma attached to receiving free food. In addition, FSM is  all or nothing – any formula including FSM assumes that a child who’s family income is low enough to receive them (around £16,000) has additional educational needs but one whose family is just over the limit needs no extra support. It is also a purely economic indicator, and does not take into account that certain communities are culturally rather than financially deprived.

Michael Nicholson, Director of Admissions at Oxford University, in a letter to the Guardian  on 3 March said  that  ‘Free school meals are a bad measure of diversity at selective universities– not least because a significant number of students are not eligible for free school meals simply because they attend sixth-form colleges, further education institutions or (on bursaries) independent schools . And many students opt not to claim free school meals even if they qualify. Around 10% of Oxford University students come from families with incomes below £16,190 (the key eligibility criteria for free school meals). Only about one in 10 of these students actually claimed free school meals – the rest wouldn’t have been counted in any of the figures related to free school meals, which you cite as an indicator of Oxford’s poor access record.’ There are other measures that could be used. One alternative, identified by Policy Exchange in its pre-election report on the Pupil Premium and   used by 12 authorities, is the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). This is a combined indicator developed by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) across seven different domains (housing, education, health, crime, employment, income and living environment). Previously the IMD was only calculated at ward level which was not hugely useful as inter-ward geographies can differ dramatically. In 2004 the IMD was applied to Super Output Areas (SOAs), which are small areas averaging around 1,500 people designed by the Office of National Statistics, using zone-design software to combine compact shape and relative social homogeneity. There are 34,378 SOAs compared to around 10,000 wards at any given time (wards are electoral and so boundaries change regularly – one of the benefits of SOAs is that the boundaries do not change allowing more accurate trend analysis). Applying IMD at this level gives it a greater level of accuracy enabling authorities to use it in a formula. Bury, for example, scores each pupil by their IMD and allocates deprivation funding accordingly.  However, IMD is not pupil specific and even though SOAs are tightly drawn there are still small pockets of deprivation in predominantly affluent ones and vice versa. The Policy Exchange report (co-authored as it happens by Sam Freedman currently an education adviser to Gove) recommended using a “geodemographic” classification like ACORN or MOSAIC which analyse individuals’ postcodes using 400 variables derived from the census and other sources but are relatively simple to understand.  The report stated ‘The MOSAIC classification is a better predictor of student performance than other proxies like Free School Meals.’

Under the current school funding system in England, most funds are allocated on a per-pupil basis – the more pupils a school has, the more funding it receives. However, the money a school receives for each pupil is adjusted (‘weighted’) to take into account pupils’ characteristics, such as their age, whether they have special education needs (SEN), and whether they come from a deprived background (Free School Meals). Local authorities create their own ‘fair funding formula’, deciding how much extra money the schools under their control receive for different sorts of pupils. However much of the extra money for poorer students comes not from annual revenue funding via the DSG but through central government grants which are often designed to support specific policy outcomes while the  FSM  remains  the predominant indicator in the various formulae used by local authorities to re-allocate their share of the DSG.

The Government has set out a Free Schools funding formula and Ready Reckoner  for   the Academic Year 2011/12 that  is based  on a number of  different components. Which amongst others takes into account the needs of disadvantaged pupils on FSM.  Ministers announced  in December 2010  allocations for the first year of the £625m pupil premium , revealing that it would be distributed at a flat rate of £430 for each child registered for free school meals. The pupil premium for 2011-12 will be allocated to local authorities and schools with pupils that are known to be eligible for free school meals as recorded on the January 2011 school census, pupil referral unit census and alternative provision census. So,  each pupil known to be eligible for free school meals will attract £430 of funding which will go to the school or academy via the local authority or YPLA if the pupil is in a mainstream setting or will be managed by the responsible local authority if the pupil is in a non-mainstream setting.

If politicians want to accurately target disadvantaged pupils,  which is clearly a priority of the coalition government , the FSM  benchmark is a pretty blunt tool .There should be a consultation to identify a better way of identifying and targeting our most disadvantaged pupils  for their sakes but  also to secure a better return for the investment made in this important area of public policy.

Note: Of the 80,000 students eligible for free school meals in the United Kingdom, only 176 achieved three As at A-level


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