Changes to the way pupils’ level of disadvantage is calculated will make it more difficult to track their educational progress over the next decade, a report suggests.

The “transitional arrangements” introduced by the Government to smooth the rollout of Universal Credit (UC) are increasing the number of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSMs), according to a paper by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The average attainment for the disadvantaged cohort is likely to be pulled upwards as the newly eligible FSM pupils have slightly higher attainment relative to those who are already eligible, researchers say.

This could make it difficult to tell whether any changes to the attainment gap are being driven by changes to the composition of the group, economic conditions or genuine attainment changes, they add.

The number of FSM eligible pupils rose by nearly 300,000 between January 2020 and 2021, the report says.

From April 2018, any pupil whose family was receiving Universal Credit, with an annual net income of £7,400 or less, was FSM-eligible. If their family circumstances changed, a pupil would usually lose their FSM status.

Free school meals
Changes to the way pupils are identified as eligible for free school meals will make it more difficult to track disadvantaged pupils’ progress, a new report says (Gareth Fuller/PA)

But the Government introduced transitional arrangements to smooth the UC rollout, so that any pupil eligible for FSM at any point from April 2018 until the end of the rollout – set to be summer 2023 at the earliest – would keep their eligibility for the duration of the rollout and for the educational phase they were in at the end of the rollout.

The report says this would mean that a Year 3 pupil eligible for FSMs in April 2018 would keep their eligibility for the rest of their schooling even if their family situation improved, as they would be in secondary school in summer 2023.

But a Year 3 pupil who becomes eligible for free school meals in January 2024 could lose their eligibility at any time if their family circumstances rise above the threshold.

The report concludes that this will change the profile of pupils identified as disadvantaged, and could make it harder to measure their progress.

It says that pupils who became eligible in January 2021 were more likely to be from an ethnic minority group, have English as an additional language and have slightly higher prior attainment than those already receiving FSMs, although with lower prior attainment than those who were not eligible.

The report concludes that the changing profile of disadvantaged pupils is “likely to result in an apparent improvement in the average attainment of this group, which will make it very difficult to interpret what might be driving any changes in the attainment gap over time”.

Jenna Julius, senior economist and report co-author, said: “While changes in the attainment gap are already subject to potential misinterpretation, it is going to become increasingly difficult to understand how the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is evolving over time.

“If we want to monitor changes in attainment between young people from different backgrounds in future and develop policies to address these, policymakers should urgently explore the development of a basket of measures to better understand and interpret the evolution of attainment among disadvantaged pupils in the coming years.”

The report calls on the Government to develop a new “basket of measures” to better understand the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

It adds that Pupil Premium funding, which is targeted at poorer children, should be increased in line with school-level inflation over the next five years.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is both clear and deeply concerning that Covid-19 has led to a sharp increase in the number of families living in poverty.

“As this report shows, many of the children and young people who have become eligible during recent years are disproportionately drawn from more disadvantaged areas and are those who already needed additional support from schools.

“It’s quite right that these pupils attract additional funding so that schools have the resources they need to meet their needs, even though this will make comparison – and therefore tracking progress – harder.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the changes in eligibility would “skew the figures so that we won’t be able to tell if the attainment gap between these pupils and other children is improving or not”.

Being able to track the progress of disadvantaged youngsters is a key element in boosting social justice, and the Government’s oft-repeated phrase ‘levelling up’,” he added.

“Therefore, there really does need to be a fresh look at how we keep track of disadvantage in the education system, backed with sufficient support through the pupil premium.”