Definition and commentary
Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) live in households where income is low. It is therefore a measure that is strongly associated with poverty. Not all pupils eligible for FSM actually claim their entitlement and this also varies with changes in family circumstances. Although not all pupils in receipt of FSM are working class, difficulty measuring the social class of pupils, coupled with the availability of FSM data in schools, has led to the use of FSM as a proxy for social class in much academic research. However, the tendency not to make a clear distinction between pupils in receipt of FSM and other working class pupils helps to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
The number of pupils in receipt of FSM affects the allocation of resources to schools. Schools with a higher than average proportion of pupils receiving FSM (currently about 14%) warrant additional financial support. Pupils in receipt of FSM tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than pupils not in receipt of FSM across all key stages. They are also more likely to be: identified as having a Special Educational Need; to be excluded from school; to be under-represented in provision for Gifted and Talented pupils: to be under-represented in top sets. Recent research findings suggest a need to take account of the more complex relationships between income and ethnicity than can be captured by the use of data on FSM and between gender and FSM.
The significant differences in educational outcomes experienced by pupils in receipt of Free School Meals, and the way in which achievement gains in Primary schooling drop off during Secondary schooling, suggest the importance of continuing to focus attention on the persistent and complex relationship between material disadvantage and educational outcomes.
For a brief discussion of FSM as a measure of disadvantage see the Annex on p.39 of the DCFS (2009) report BREAKING THE LINK between disadvantage and low attainment EVERYONE'S BUSINESS