Friday, 9 August 2013

Free school meals: not a reliable passport to poverty?

Jonathan Bradshaw writes:
The latest government report on child poverty shows that two thirds of poor children (<60% median income threshold before housing costs) are now living in families with at least one adult in work. This includes part-time and full-time work and these categories are self-defined by respondents in the Family Resources Survey (Households below average income data). If a lone-parent works more than 16 hours per week or a couple more than 24 hours a week their children are not eligible for free school meals. 50% of poor children have an adult in full-time work and therefore not eligible for free school meals and a further 17% have an adult in part-time work and who may not be eligible if they work 16/24 hours or more a week. The Children’s Society has also analysed these data.

So the majority of poor children are not eligible for free school meals. Given that many of those eligible do not claim (over a quarter in one study), we can conclude that the majority of poor children (in England) are not receiving school meals.

Yet receipt of free school meals is being used as a passport to poverty. The Coalition Government’s flagship £1.9 billion Pupil Premium is allocating to schools an extra £900 per child who has been on free school meals in the last six years - to enable schools to provide extra help to “disadvantaged” pupils. The official measure of the attainment gap also uses whether a child is eligible for free school meals as the indicator of disadvantage. Schools are often classified by the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals and local authorities/ schools also often use free school meals receipt as a measure of disadvantage, meaning that a lot of other valuable support (such as help with transport and school uniform costs, music tuition etc) is linked to free school meals.

Our research[1]on child well-being has also used receipt of free school meals as an indicator of poverty and we have found that it (and worklessness) explains very little of the variation in subjective well-being, and not nearly as much as an index of child deprivation

Certainly children receiving free school meals will be poor. They may also be poorer than poor children not receiving free school meals. But they are not all, or even, most of poor and disadvantaged children.

[1] Main, G. and Bradshaw, J. (2012) A child material deprivation index, Child Indicators Research, 5,3, 503-521 DOI 10.1007/s12187-012-9145-7

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Social Policy Research Unit, nor of the University of York.