Measuring Changing Disadvantage of Education

This is the second in a series of blogs by Dan Stucke, Managing Consultant for Data & Analytics, looking at topical issues in education, their impact on schools, and what school and MAT leaders should do as a result. Following the first post looking at attendance in Covid times, we now focus on the changing landscape of pupil disadvantage. 

NFER: Investigating The Changing Landscape Of Pupil Disadvantage 

This post focuses on the latest report from the National Foundation for Educational Research – Investigating The Changing Landscape Of Pupil Disadvantage. Within the report, NFER highlight the increasing number of disadvantaged students as a result of the pandemic and changes to Universal Credit (UC). The increase in students eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), and hence considered ‘disadvantaged,’ is statistically significant. It will have a material effect on the budget of schools, and means that comparing future disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged cohorts with historical ones will be difficult. ‘Narrowing the gap’ has been a national focus, and will no doubt continue to be, so it is important that school leaders understand and can explain these changes both at a national and local level. 


  • Free School Meals (FSM) eligible pupil: A pupil who currently is eligible for free school meals due to the financial situation of their parents, and who makes a claim. Eligibility is based on income and benefits, including households on Universal Credit with an income below £7400 or Working Tax Credit with an income below £16,190. 
  • Free School Meals Ever 6 (FSM6): A pupil eligible for FSM at any point in the previous 6 years. 
  • Pupil Premium (PP): ‘Disadvantaged’ student who brings additional funding to the school. Includes any pupil who is FSM6, or was ever in local authority care, or is currently from a service family. 

Disadvantaged pupil numbers are growing

The NFER report explains that there are two key drivers of increasing eligibility for FSM and hence PP: 

  • Pandemic: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase of almost 300,000 pupils eligible for FSM between January 2022-21. An increase from 17.7-21.6% in primary schools and 15.9-18.9% in secondaries. 
  • Universal Credit (UC) transition: As the government moves benefits, including working tax credit to universal credit, they have put transition arrangements in place. These include ensuring that any pupil eligible for FMS between April 2018 and the end of the rollout (Summer 2023) will retain FSM eligibility for that whole period and until the end of their phase of education ends. They would then retain FSM6 status for a further 6 years. In effect, this means any pupil eligible for FSM between April 2018 and Summer 2023 will retain PP status until they finish secondary education. 

The pupils being added to the overall pool of disadvantaged pupils are disproportionally from disadvantaged areas and schools and are academically significantly weaker than non-disadvantaged. These changes mean that FSM6 rates will peak in 2029/30 and remain high, with increases of up to around a fifth. 


  • Attainment gap: Increasing the size of the disadvantaged group by up to a fifth will have an impact on the attainment gap. This will make it increasingly difficult for schools, MAT, LA & sector leaders to analyse changes in performance of key groups at all levels. 
  • Other gaps: It is customary to look at most key indicators for schools through the lens of disadvantaged, including attendance, exclusions and destinations. These changes to the cohort will make comparisons difficult. 
  • Funding: The PP grant is part of the overall budget for schools, it is unclear how an increase in funding levels for PP could impact the rest of the budget. 

What can school leaders, governors and trustees do? 

Clearly, these changes will impact schools and trusts to a different degree depending on their demographics. Rightly, there is a keen focus on the education of disadvantaged students; this won’t change anytime soon. As leaders, you will want to continue to support these pupils and do all in your power to give them the best education you can, and not allow their circumstances to impact their life chances negatively. So, what can you do? 

Know your pupils and keep accurate records

PP funding will continue to follow only those who you accurately record in your MIS as being eligible. A recommendation in the report is for the government to automate the eligibility recording, but until that potentially happens you should: 

  1. Continue to publicise FSM eligibility and encourage parents to apply when eligible; 
  1. Make sure that someone in your school understands the eligibility criteria in detail and can support parents in applying for FSM; 
  1. Ensure that transition data is accurate and detailed. Ensure pupils that were eligible for FSM at some point during primary school are recorded accurately in your MIS. Check the rules around UC transition and ensure they’re applied; 
  1. Work with parents, primaries, local authorities and virtual schools to ensure you are aware of any pupils who were once in care. If they were in care aged 5, and are now 15, they are still eligible for pupil premium. 

Know your cohort and your school/MAT’s story

Your disadvantaged cohorts will be in a state of flux. Trustees, governors, Ofsted inspectors and local authorities may not be aware of this and will continue to challenge you on your impact on these cohorts over time. A further report recommendation is to introduce updated definitions and measures for accountability, but until that comes to pass you should: 

  1. Analyse the changes to your disadvantaged (and correspondingly non-disadvantaged) cohorts over time. Factors to look at include size, gender, prior ability, location/deprivation levels (IDACI analyses could help if needed). 
  1. Make sure the data analytics tools you use allow you to interrogate this data in depth from MAT level down to individual schools, year groups and sub-groups. 
  1. Record a summary of cohort changes in your published PP strategy and the implications of these changes. 
  1. Reference these changes and their potential impact whenever assessing your strategy and your school performance. 
  1. Update this analysis annually. 

Plan your budgets

Is your cohort changing? Will this lead to an increased PP budget? Can you plan for next year and the year after? For some schools the sums involved could be large, there are some key actions you can do to estimate future budgets: 

  1. Ensure that your eligibility audits are completed before the October census. The move to October rather than January census cost schools £90m last year in funding; ensure you don’t miss out on future funding due to poor record-keeping. 
  1. Estimate future trends. If you know the deprivation levels in your area well, you should have an idea based on the information above as to how numbers could change over the coming 5 years. Plan accordingly for this, with an understanding that the government may cut or change funding streams to ensure that the overall national schools’ budget doesn’t change. 
  1. Review your PP strategy. If you will have a growing cohort and PP budget, but potentially shrinking main school grant, will you need to change the nature of items budgeted within your strategy? Will the activities in your current strategy meet the needs of the growing cohort? Will you need to bring wages of certain staff within this plan to balance the overall budget? As with all school budgeting, looking much beyond 12-24 months is difficult. It’s important you have a deep understanding of PP and potential changes. 

Work together

I have yet to meet anyone in education who doesn’t believe passionately that they get up each morning to break down inequalities in society and support all children to be their best possible selves. Too many young people are genuinely disadvantaged in the UK. The more we can work together, and share our successes and failures in reducing these gaps, the better.  

If you have examples you would like to share then please get in contact with me, we’d be delighted to showcase your work to the wider education community. If you would like to speak to me about how we can support your school or MAT with our data analytics tools and our leadership experience, I would be delighted to talk and learn with you. 

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