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Free school meals figures are misleading, Catholic academics warn

Deprived Catholic families do not always apply for free school meals (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The amount of children who receive Free School Meals (FSM) is a misleading indicator of a school’s socio-economic composition, Catholic academics have warned in response to critics of faith schools.

Researchers at St Mary’s University Twickenham have released a report revealing that data published by the Department for Education, only includes the number of children who receive free meals rather than the number who are eligible.

The report, entitled The Take-up of Free School Meals in Catholic Schools in England and Wales, highlights that while according to FSM figures there are a comparatively low number of pupils from deprived backgrounds in Catholic schools, alternative deprivation barometers such the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index shows that children from deprived backgrounds are in fact over represented in Catholic schools.

The report reveals that 18.4% of children in Catholic primary schools live in the most deprived areas compared with 13.8% of pupils across state primary schools as a whole.

Researchers argue that their findings challenge critics of faith schools who argue that Catholic schools favour admitting privileged children.

Reasons given for why families in Catholic schools might not be accepting FSM although they are eligible include lack of precise information about how to apply along with language and literacy barriers.

Speaking about these findings, report co-author, Professor Stephen Bullivant, the director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, said: “Reliance on figures for the uptake of Free School Meals, mislabelled as ‘eligibility’, have helped to create a deeply misleading impression of faith schools’ recruitment of students from underprivileged backgrounds.

“These figures are often cited by campaigners and the media in support of the view that faith schools are socially selective, catering to the affluent middle classes. Our research demonstrates that this inference, at least with regard to Catholic schools, rests on very shaky foundations.”

He added: “The Department for Education has itself confirmed that its statistics on ‘FSM eligibility’ are not, in fact, a measure of eligibility at all. Class inequality is a real problem in Britain affecting children’s attainment. This data fails to understand different degrees of poverty and the practical obstacles people entitled to benefits face. It also highlights the specific challenges facing families from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who are over-represented in Catholic schools.”