Family incomes data should be linked with pupil attainment statistics to better track outcomes for persistently disadvantaged pupils, a new report has recommended.
The recommendation comes from the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) latest report on disadvantage gaps in England.
Its research shows the largest increase in the GCSE attainment gap between poor children and their peers in 2021 since 2011, despite the use of teacher assessed grades during the Covid pandemic.
In October, provisional key stage 4 performance data showed the gap had since grown again. The disadvantage attainment gap now stands at 3.84, having risen from 3.79 in 2021.
Both the EPI and the Department for Education (DfE) currently define pupils as disadvantaged if they have been eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years.
Profile of children considered disadvantaged has changed
But the report warned that changes to FSM eligibility over the last decade makes it harder to track the outcomes of these pupils, particularly if they’re considered “persistently” disadvantaged, which means they have always claimed meals.
In 2018, the government changed the earnings threshold for to £7,400 before benefits under universal credit.
The government predicted this would lead to a net increase of 50,000 pupils eligible for free school meals. However, the profile of the group will change over time, despite transitional arrangements to protect children’s access to FSM until the end of their phase of schooling.
The report points out that “this potentially effects the persistently disadvantaged group who, over time, capture more of those who are eligible for FSM due to protections rather than their financial circumstances”.
As a result, EPI recommends that to “better understand outcomes for persistently disadvantaged students and target support to where it is most needed” the DfE should publish data linking family income to pupil-level attainment data in the National Pupil Database.
The National Foundation for Educational Research previously warned that the government’s flagship attainment gap measure does not provide “a meaningful indication” of how the attainment of disadvantaged pupils changes over time.
Increasing levels of poverty during the pandemic also meant that hundreds of thousands of more children became eligible for free meals.
This will make it “increasingly difficult” to tell if changes in the attainment gap are the result of improvements in outcomes or changes to the makeup of the group being measured.
More pupils are in persistent poverty
EPI also noted a “marked increase” in persistent poverty among disadvantaged pupils in recent years.
Among those in year 11, the share of pupils who had always been eligible for free school meals increased from 22.1 per cent in 2019, to 27.6 per cent in 2021.
Even when data was adjusted to consider the effect of universal credit altering the composition of disadvantaged pupils, “we still find rising persistence of poverty and worsening educational outcomes for persistently disadvantaged pupils in 2021 compared to their peers”.
Commenting on the report, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The issue of social and economic inequality is not new, and nor can it be solved by schools and colleges alone.
“Significant investment is required to close the disadvantage gap and create a system without such a close alignment between family income and educational attainment.”
Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, described the widening of the gap as “scandalous”.
Prof Becky Francis, chief executive of Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Today’s findings from the Education Policy Institute are a stark reminder of the inequality entrenched in our schools, and the scale of the challenge that closing the attainment gap presents.”