Most of the time our work involves using the National Pupil Database to examine particular aspects of the education system. However, it can also throw up interesting insights into the state of the nation more generally.

Last year, we wrote about how the percentage of pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals (FSM) had fallen between 2002 and 2016, and in particular between 2013 and 2016 following welfare reforms and the introduction of universal infant free school meals. Today we publish an interactive map showing how rates have changed at a local area[1] level.

Click here to view the interactive map

What is stark is the extent to which FSM eligibility has fallen in major cities in England.

It’s not just a London thing either.

There have been sizeable falls in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham too.

The falling FSM eligibility rate in major cities

Our analysis is based on pupils in Years 1 to 11 in state-funded schools.

The chart below shows the de-trended percentage eligible for free school meals – that is, the difference between the FSM rate for an area and the national average.

Changes in pupil populations in major cities

Alongside changes in FSM rates are some fascinating changes in the numbers of young people in each area.

These bring challenges in expanding (or reducing) the number of school places in response.

The chart below looks at the percentage change in the population relative to 2002.

In England as a whole, the number of pupils in Years 1 to 11 fell between 2002 and 2010, since when it has begun to increase again.

However, the size of the pupil population in London, Manchester and Birmingham has rocketed since 2010.

Meanwhile, the pupil population in Liverpool fell by 20% between 2002 and 2013, since when it has begun to increase.

(Numbers in brackets are the Y1-Y11 population in January 2002)

But major cities haven’t changed uniformly

What is interesting is that, even within major cities, change has not been uniform.

The number of school-age children living in central Birmingham has increased, with the FSM eligibility rate falling at the same time.

There has been relatively little change in many outlying areas, though, and in some the FSM eligibility rate has in fact increased.

The same is true to some extent of Liverpool. The school-age population has grown in the very centre of the city (although relatively few pupils still live there). But elsewhere the population has tended to fall – and the FSM eligibility rate has fallen across the city.

And some rural areas have become more disadvantaged

Whilst the FSM rate has tended to fall in most major cities, some rural areas have gone the other way.

The school-age population of Lincolnshire has become more disadvantaged. It has also fallen in size in the eastern part of the county.

Summing up

So what conclusions can we draw from this?

Firstly, it shows quite how much the demographics of an area can change in a little less than a decade and a half.

This change can be driven by any number of things: investment, migration and the labour market, among other factors.

Our map of the whole country shows that major urban centres have tended to become less disadvantaged over the period looked at. But a number of smaller urban areas have too: Bedford, Telford, Stoke-on-Trent and Grimsby, for example.

Little wonder the policy focus has shifted away from major cities. Initiatives from the earlier part of the century, such as London Challenge and Excellence in Cities, have given way to social mobility opportunity areas. Similarly, Teach First has expanded its reach beyond London and into rural and coastal areas. Whether resources have shifted accordingly is perhaps a matter for debate.

Do explore our interactive map, and share anything interesting you find in the comments section below.

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1. Middle layer super output area (MSOA). There are 6,791 MSOAs in England. On average, 950 pupils live in each MSOA, but numbers vary. In 2016, the smallest MSOA had 16 pupils and the largest 3360. The standard deviation was 338. For more on MSOAs see: