The number of children who receive free school meals (FSM) is a misleading indicator of a school’s socio-economic composition, Catholic academics have said.
The figure is often used by campaigners to accuse Catholic schools of not taking a fair share of poor pupils.
But researchers at St Mary’s University, Twickenham have shown that data from the Department for Education only include the number of children actually receiving free meals, rather than all those who are eligible but may not have signed up for them.
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, show that such children are in fact over-represented in Catholic schools.
The report reveals that 18.4 per cent of children in Catholic primary schools live in the most deprived areas, compared with 13.8 per cent of pupils across state primary schools as a whole.
Researchers argue that their findings challenge critics of faith schools who claim 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.
There has also traditionally been a stigma attached to receiving free school meals, which discourages some families from applying.
Free school meals are available to families receiving income support, jobseeker’s
and other allowances, child tax credit and other state benefits.
School meals cost £2.15 in primary schools and £2.20 in secondary schools. Since 2014 all infant pupils are entitled to a free hot meal each day.
The uptake of free school meals has long been used as a measure of the poverty and economic deprivation of a school’s catchment area. Speaking about the St Mary’s report, co-author Professor Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, said: “Reliance on figures for the uptake of free school meals, mislabelled as ‘eligibility’, has 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.”
Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to make it easier to open faith-based free schools.
Bishop hails prison reform Bill
Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton has praised the Government’s prison reform Bill for its emphasis on rehabilitation.
Bishop Moth, the bishop for prisons, said it was “extremely welcome” that the most significant reform of British prison law for more than 50 years is introducing a statutory duty for prisons to provide “reform, rehabilitation, and preparation for life outside”. He said the Church had been “engaging closely” with the legislation.
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