It may not be the clearest way to allocate extra funds to disadvantaged pupils, but it’s the best there is, says Alex Sutherland.

Every year, the UK government allocates £2.5 billion to state schools to support disadvantaged pupils via the pupil premium. To figure out how to allocate these funds, the government uses free school meal eligibility to measure pupil socioeconomic disadvantage. The idea is that free school meal eligibility is linked to lower pupil achievement, and the additional funding can help state schools to narrow the achievement gap between students who receive free school meals and those who don’t.

Yet some within the academic community and government recognise the limitations in using free school meal eligibility as a predictor for pupil achievement. Some have argued that other measures of family background, such as parental education or neighbourhood deprivation, would be more predictive — and would thus be better indicators of pupil deprivation.

There are two key limitations to using free school meal status. First, free school meal eligibility fluctuates with economic cycles, since the number of pupils eligible increases during times of economic hardship and shrinks during boom times.

At the same time, research suggests that parents feel stigmatised when registering their children as eligible, making them reluctant to do so. This results in too many or too few pupils being recognised as disadvantaged, which has a direct impact on funding.

The Department for Education commissioned RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge to measure the effectiveness of free school meals as a predictor of pupil achievement in England. The research considered whether other measures of socioeconomic status did a better job of explaining variation in pupil achievement at primary and secondary school.

Free school meal eligibility fluctuates with economic cycles

The study also tested household education, parental occupation, household income, household characteristics such as housing tenure, and neighbourhood measures such as neighbourhood poverty (measured by the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index). These, with the free school meal measure and a number of other pupil characteristics, were explored through combining data from the Millennium Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, with publicly available data from the UK census and administrative data from the government.

Results were remarkably similar for primary and secondary pupils. When combined with the other pupil characteristics, models with measures of free school meal eligibility worked best, in practical terms, for explaining variation in pupil achievement. While models with parental education and parental occupation were marginally better at predicting pupil achievement, the potential costs of switching to either of these approaches far outweighed any slight gains.Switching to either approach would require significant investment to collect data, and collecting data on parents’ education levels or occupations on a national scale could be a challenge.

Neighbourhood measures were a worse predictor of pupil achievement than free school meals. However, results did differ, with neighbourhood measures a stronger predictor of a child’s achievement at primary than secondary school. This difference may be because of the much smaller catchment areas for primary schools or because the effects of peers are weaker during primary school.

More importantly, neighbourhood measures may only serve to exacerbate the educational inequalities that free school meals seek to reduce, as individual circumstances can vary widely within the same neighbourhood. Using such measures could mean that schools whose catchment area includes children from relatively poor(er) backgrounds in rich(er) neighbourhoods receive less funding, while those with children from relatively rich(er) backgrounds in poor(er) neighbourhoods receive more.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the well-known limitations of using free school meal eligibility, our research suggests that it is presently the most practical measure of pupil deprivation. Free school meal eligibility performs better and is more feasible to use than neighbourhood measures.

Similarly, other indicators that are marginally better in terms of predictiveness would not be cost-effective to collect.

Alex Sutherland is the lead author of “Understanding the Factors Associated with Academic Achievement” research project