Free School Meals: It's time for a better measure of disadvantage


Research suggests the attainment gap is not a problem caused by schools’ policies, but by wider societal factors. Paul Scutt says it is time to develop an instrument for judging schools that is more sophisticated than free school meals.

I read with interest an article in a recent edition of SecEd, relating to the research into performance “gaps” undertaken by Professor Steve Strand of the University of Oxford (Research raises questions about attainment gap accountability, SecEd 393, October 2014:

The research stated that those who accuse schools of “failing” when they do not close the attainment gap have misunderstood the nature of the problem. Prof Strand’s analysis finds that the “pervasiveness” of the attainment gap throughout all types of institutions suggests that it is not a problem caused by a school’s policies, but by wider factors outside of their gates.

While the findings echo my own experience of working and leading schools in both London and Somerset, I remain bemused by the failure of anyone in a position of influence to question the notion that students on free school meals are in some way “homogenous”.

Clearly any group is made up of a collection of individuals and to assume that such children are equally predisposed to achieve or struggle in the education system is woefully simplistic. While children on free school meals may indeed share a common experience of economic and indeed social deprivation, this is not to say that they are similar in all other respects.

Research suggests that the characteristics of disadvantaged children in relation to literacy, aspiration and self-improvement are the most significant factors in terms of their impact on progress.

Students in receipt of free school meals may live in White working class families where there is less opportunity to thrive in education. Such families may have for generations experienced the cultural poverty which represents a significant and for many a lasting barrier to achievement. 

There may also be an absence of role-models having succeeded in the system as well as an absence of a pervading set of attitudes and values which facilitate or encourage learning and achievement.

Contrast this with the family who have relocated in the UK from abroad, whose principal barrier to learning is language alone. Such children may experience an abundance of those other critical factors such as support and ambition which are fundamental to success. 

Indeed for these children, exposure to language over time will give rise to evidence of rapid progress as they move between key stages. 

They flourish despite their economic circumstances, for the very reason that they are constrained by factors which are temporary not permanent.

While I would not want to belittle the remarkable success of London schools over the past decade, it is somewhat disingenuous to ignore the demographic change in the population over the same period. This is not to argue that all children relocating to the UK will do equally well, far from it. Again the key factors are contextual and the extent to which they and those in their family attribute importance and value to what the educational system has to offer.

What is clear is that nationally there are gaps that exist between average progress and the progress made by children who belong to recognised groups. Such groups include those in receipt of the Pupil Premium as well as others, such as those with English as a second language and those with additional educational needs. It is not surprising that this is the case since for each of these groups there is a recognisable disadvantage.

I am troubled by the fact that we fail to recognise that our inability to close these various gaps says more about the circumstances of the child than it does about the performance of the school.

It is, in my view, about time that we began to understand why some children, schools and education authorities appear to succeed while others struggle to do so. A simple comparison of those on FSM is far too blunt an instrument on which to make judgements.

What we need is to shine the spotlight on the differing contexts of those Pupil Premium children in order to establish precisely why they do or do not make progress.

In this way we have some hope of identifying the strategies we need to foster if we are to deliver change and improvement for our most disadvantaged children. A more reliable and robust system of accountability would also presumably be a welcome product of such research.


Paul Scutt is headteacher of Bishop Fox’s Community School in Taunton, Somerset.


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