Children and Young Adults

Are failing schools a poverty issue?

  • Published: Feb 02, 2012
  • Author: Tom MacInnes
  • Category: Children and Young Adults

Recent figures from the Department for Education showed that over 100 schools in England fell below the expected standard for GCSE attainment. Many of these schools have high proportions of disadvantaged pupils, and many more such schools are just above the floor standard. 

The Department for Education published its annual Performance tables for GCSE pupils. The first striking thing was the language of the press release, stressing the high numbers of failing schools and failed pupils. Labour’s publications would always stress the positive, and no doubt once the Coalition feels the time has come to take responsibility for educational outcomes they will follow a similar tone. 

The press release talks about the gap between disadvantaged pupils and other pupils. In last year’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report we looked at how children from deprived backgrounds (those known to be eligible for free school meals) were much less likely to attain expected grades at age 11 or 16 than other pupils. While overall attainment has improved for poorer students, the gap remains. 

We can now update those figures. In 2011, 33.9% of children known to be eligible for free school meals attained the national benchmark of 5 GCSEs at A*-C including maths and English. This compares to a national average of 58.2%. 

The performance tables allow us to look not only at pupil performance, but at the performance of individual schools. The performance tables talk of schools falling below the “floor standard”. A school is below the floor standard if less than 35% of pupils attain the national benchmark of 5 GCSEs at A*-C including maths and English; and a lower than average proportion of pupils make the expected amount of progress since age 11 in both Maths and English. 

The first of these conditions is the strongest. In roughly half of schools a below- average proportion of pupils will fail to make progress in maths or English by definition. But 35% of pupils attaining the benchmark 5 A-Cs is well below the national average of 58%. It is this that limits the number of schools below the floor standard to 107. 

The graph below shows the proportion of schools falling below the floor standard, grouped according to their free school meal intake. The pattern is pretty clear. 

Graph 1 - Schools below floor target by free school meal intake


Among schools with fewer than 10% of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals, only around 1% fell below the floor standard. School with high numbers of such pupils – over 40% - were over 10 times as likely to fall below the standard. 

Looking at these figures another way, two thirds of schools above the floor standard have less than 20% of pupils eligible for free school meals. Two thirds of schools below the floor standard have more than 20% of pupils eligible. 

All the same, free school meal eligibility is not the sole determining factor behind school performance. Even among schools with over 40% eligibility, only 12% (18 schools in all) are below the floor level. And London, which as a region has the highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, has only three schools below the floor standard. 

It is possibly coincidental that this 35% figure used in the floor standard is so close to the 34% of pupils eligible for free school meals who attain the 5 A*-C benchmark. So the increase from 35% to 40% next year could make a big difference. The next graph looks at what the distribution of “failing” schools would have been this year if the threshold had been 40% rather than 35%. This year’s figures are kept for comparison. 

Graph 2 - Free school meals intake and  schools below the floor target 2011 and modelled for 2012

Obviously there are more failing schools if the threshold is raised – we estimate around 280. Regardless of the proportion of children eligible for free school meals, the proportion of schools falling below the threshold doubles at least. This is even true of schools with fewer than 10% of pupils on free school meals, even if the change is imperceptible (0.9% to 1.4%, a figure that gets lost in the rounding). So there are evidently a lot of schools just above the 35% threshold. 

But these changes mean that over one quarter of schools with high proportions of children eligible for free school meals would be currently classed as failing. Obviously, improvement can be expected over the next year, as has been the case in previous years. But an additional 5 percentage points is quite a lot – certainly more than any year- on-year increase in average attainment since 2005. 

So this is the flip side of the pupil premium. Schools with high proportions of deprived pupils will get more money, but a large proportion will have to significantly improve performance or risk being classed as failing.

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