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…

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Why give free school meals to pupils who are not eligible?

I don’t know if a well-balanced and nutritious meal, rather than a Mars bar and chips, improves a child’s concentration, test scores or even their health. So, I cannot comment generally on the value of giving anyone a state-subsidised meal. However, if you want to use schools to improve the nutrition of children in poverty, you have to offer free school meals to those who aren’t actually currently eligible for free school meals.

Why? Free school meals eligibility is currently available to a family if they are in receipt of income support, income-based job seekers allowance, child tax credits (with an income ceiling), and a few other benefits. But analysis by Hobbs and Vignoles (2009) shows that this group of children are not the same set of children with the lowest household incomes. Only somewhere between a quarter and a half of the 16 percent of children who are eligible for FSM are in the bottom 16 percent of the distribution of household income, as illustrated in this Figure from their paper.

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