One of the biggest current concerns for senior leaders is how to manage students who are eligible for free school meals (FSM). It's at the top of Ofsted's checklist and has become a weapon in the armory of what some headteachers call the tyranny of judgment.
A students' academic achievement is hugely influenced by their background and level of advantage or disadvantage. The relatively recent introduction of the pupil premium was a significant shift in educational aims in England, moving from the idea of universal entitlement to one of a minimum acceptable standard with no excuse for lack of achievement linked to disadvantage.
We run the risk, however, of viewing schemes like the pupil premium as a panacea both for educational standards and the social disadvantages affecting FSM pupils. There is a risk that the pupil premium could become a blunt instrument that solves a teaching and learning problem with an economic lever. This can only be indirect at best; increasing resources to schools according to the number of FSM pupils is a shotgun approach. Although much of the funding may find its target, some will miss and some will be aimed at the wrong place. Only a focused use of the premium and careful evaluation will increase its efficacy.
General conclusions suggest it is more about the quality of intervention rather than the quantity. There is also helpful evidence about how achievement for all students can be attained, such as through the Learning Toolkit. This toolkit indicates that quality of teaching is of central importance, not our current focus on the quantity of progress that children make.
We also need to be aware that FSM can miss out whole cohorts: it's not necessarily the case that all disadvantaged pupils are registered for FSM. Some may be significantly affected by disadvantage, but may not be eligible. Some may be eligible, but have not signed up. This latter group is likely to increase with universal provision of free lunches – what is the incentive to fill in the forms if your child is going to receive a free meal anyway?
Equally, we shouldn't assume that all FSM students underperform. A significant proportion in each school may be high achievers, though disadvantaged by their circumstances. These pupils are likely to be less visible in terms of their attainment profile compared with their non-FSM peers. Nor should we equate FSM with either special educational needs (SEN) or poor behaviour: overlaps may occur, but they aren't universal and we must take care not to mis-label pupils.
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