Eligibility for free school meals (FSM) has traditionally been used in education research as a proxy for poverty. It has its limitations of course: not all those who may be eligible choose to claim for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, differences in attainment between those known to be eligible and other pupils are stark. As a result, schools now receive additional funding through the Pupil Premium to raise the attainment of pupils known to have been eligible for FSM in the previous 6 years. As we have shown previously though, some pupils who may have been eligible at primary school may drop out of the Pupil Premium group by the time they reach the end of secondary school. The attainment and progress of this group is similar to the Pupil Premium group. But when do pupils become eligible for free school meals? And does the likelihood of becoming eligible change as pupils get older?

What determines eligibility for free school meals?

Eligibility for free school meals is determined by parental income and entitlement to out-of-work benefits. The criteria have changed over time and those as at September 2014 can be seen here. The list of eligible benefits has grown since 2001/02 when it consisted of just Income Support (IS) and income-based Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the guaranteed element of the Pension Credit (PC) and support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 were added in 2003/04. IS began to be replaced by Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from 2008/09. From 2013, income-based JSA, income-based ESA, IS and CTC began to be harmonised into a single benefit: Universal Credit.

Tracking FSM eligibility for a cohort of pupils throughout their school career

In the analysis below, I look at a single cohort of pupils: those born between 1st September 1997 and 31st August 1998 who appeared in the 2002/03 school census. The vast majority of this group of 557 thousand pupils would have been in Reception that year, and around 16% were known to be eligible for free school meals.

We can track this cohort in School Census all the way through to the end of their compulsory schooling in 2013/14 when most would have taken GCSEs. Since 2006/07 the Census has been taken on a termly basis having been annual since its introduction in 2001/02. 505 thousand pupils were still in the Census in May 2014 although some may have dropped out and returned during the intervening period. 34% experienced at least one spell of FSM recorded in Census (some may have been FSM briefly between censuses but this is not observed).

Chart 1 shows the percentage of this cohort who were known to be eligible for free school meals over time (starting in 2004_01 which means term 1 in 2003/04). I’ve split those eligible into 3 groups:

1.       Those remaining FSM from previous census
2.       Those returning to FSM having not been FSM in immediately preceding census
3.       Those going on to FSM for the first time

Chart 1: Eligibility for free school meals by term
1 FSM over time

In general, we see that the risk of becoming eligible for free school meals having never previously been eligible decreases as pupils get older (the blue area). We also see a reduction in overall FSM eligibility from 2009/10 onwards when the cohort would have been in secondary schools. However, prevailing economic and political conditions also play a part in the story.

Eligibility for FSM is affected by economic and political conditions

Firstly, there was the economic shock of the recession. We see a small spike in groups 2 and 3 in the Autumn Census of 2009/10. Having dropped below 16% in the Autumn Census of 2008/09, the overall FSM rate was close to 18% in the Spring and Summer of 2009/10 before beginning its descent.

Secondly, the Coalition government made wide-ranging reforms to the benefits system from 2011 onwards. The Work Programme replaced the New Deal (in all its incarnations) as the preponderant Active Labour Market Programme (ALMP) for the long-term unemployed in June 2011. This arguably took a tougher line than its predecessor and sought to get those who were out-of-work back into work as quickly as possible. Around the same time, ESA claimants who had previously been on Incapacity Benefit began to face Work Capability Assessments. From May 2012, Income Support for lone parents with a youngest child aged 5 or over began to be phased out. Previously, those who did not work, or worked under 16 hours per week, were able to claim until their oldest child was 16. However, affected individuals could still claim other out-of-work benefits whilst looking for work. This belt-tightening has undoubtedly had an effect on the decreasing FSM eligibility rate shown in Chart 1.

The likelihood of experiencing poverty declines as pupils get older

Taken together, all this tentatively suggests that the risk of a pupil experiencing poverty (having never experienced it before) declines as they get older. 34% of the cohort analysed here experienced poverty at least once and of those, three-quarters had done so by the end of Year 4. However, FSM eligibility is only a proxy for poverty and not necessarily a particularly good one. Poverty itself is a social, not a natural, phenomenon and so resists simple definition, scaling and measurement. Indicators of it can be swayed by economic and political forces. It may be in future that pupil records from School Census linked to their parents’ Universal Credit payments and Real Time Information (RTI) on earnings from HMRC may prove more revealing about the effects of income on attainment. But that won’t happen any time soon.