Free school meals system allows ‘subtle form of covert selection’


The free school meals (FSM) methodology does not “perfectly capture poverty” and allows schools to undertake a “subtle form of covert selection”, it has been claimed.

The free school meals (FSM) methodology does not “perfectly capture poverty” and allows schools to undertake a “subtle form of covert selection”, it has been claimed.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that a replacement is now needed to better reflect the causes of disadvantage.

FSMs are generally offered to any student whose family’s annual earnings fall below a certain threshold – around £15,000 a year.

The measure has become more significant since the introduction of the Pupil Premium, which uses FSM as part of its eligibility criteria for the funding – currently worth £935 per eligible secondary student.

However, a blog by My Hobby questions whether FSM works as a measure of disadvantage and says there are “deeper issues about how we connect poverty with achievement”.

He writes: “Many headteachers say that FSM does not perfectly capture poverty. There are families who are not eligible who are struggling to get by.

“More fundamentally, poverty itself is a proxy. Poverty does not inevitably cause educational underachievement. It itself is caused by things that also harm education – family dysfunction, tragedy, low aspirations, lack of knowledge about the ways to work the system, addiction, long-term sickness and neglect.

“We all know of people who have excelled educationally from the poorest of backgrounds and of families who prize education above all else as a route out of poverty. FSM is a proxy of a proxy.”

Mr Hobby also claims that schools are able to game the FSM system. 

He explained: “It enables a subtle form of covert selection. Having a high FSM intake triggers funding and can make demonstrating progress easier – if you get the ‘right’ poor pupils. 

“You want those families who, although poor, do prize education. You make it clear, for example, that you will expect a lot of parents and place high demands on them. 

“You suggest that children with special needs might be better served by the school down the road. 

“It happens. And it shouldn’t.”

As such, Mr Hobby calls for a debate on a “practical replacement” for FSM, suggesting this could include factors such as pupils’ prior attainment – using the forthcoming reception baseline assessment for primary education and the key stage 2 tests for secondary.

He continued: “This would target resources at children falling behind whatever the reasons. It puts a lot of pressure on the measure chosen as the baseline, of course, particularly if conducted in-house like that in reception, but has a simplicity to it.”

Other suggestions include using links to parental attainment, health indicators, or other factors linked to deprivation.

Mr Hobby added: “We need a debate on this because every solution has pros and cons, and with sophistication comes complexity. However, if we are serious about breaking the link between educational success and disadvantage, we need to get serious about defining disadvantage as it manifests itself in education.”

To read Mr Hobby’s blog, visit


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