Children eligible for free school meals have poorer educational outcomes in affluent areas compared with their peers in more deprived local authorities, according to research published today by Nesta.

Nationally, children eligible for free school meals are less likely to be ‘on track’ in an assessment that includes maths, literacy, communication skills and social development compared with their peers, with 57% reaching this benchmark in 2019, compared with a national average of 72%. But Nesta’s analysis shows that 51.9% of children on free school meals in the least deprived local authorities reach the target 'Good Level of Development', compared with 59.3% in the most deprived areas.

At the end of reception year, children in England are assessed on their educational progress. The assessment, carried out by teachers, covers 17 areas and children are considered to have reached a 'Good Level of Development' if they meet goals across communication and language, personal, social and emotional development, physical development, literacy and maths.

Louise Bazalgette, deputy director of Nesta’s fairer start team said: “We don’t know for sure why children in poorer local authorities have better outcomes. There are lots of factors that could be at play including the possibility that better-off areas have less experience in dealing with disadvantage. It could be to do with teachers’ individual assessments or because the funding formula routes more money into deprived areas so it’s easier to provide more comprehensive early years services. It does suggest that we need to pay attention to educational outcomes everywhere - even in more affluent areas - and there may be opportunities to share learning and best practice among local authorities.”

Nesta’s research focus is to examine if good practice can be shared among local authorities to improve early educational outcomes. Data scientists at Nesta used a dataset including 190 different variables to cluster local authorities into seven groups with similar characteristics. This enabled them to identify variations in outcomes between areas that are otherwise similar. The findings show a wide variation in outcomes even among neighbouring areas with similar demographics and levels of deprivation. Some of the least affluent local authorities in England have nearly closed the educational outcome gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers.

In Hackney, 69% of children on free school meals reached a Good Level of Development in 2019 – only one percentage point less than children not on free school meals. Neighbouring Newham does similarly well (71%) while outside of London, Slough (69%) has just a 3% outcome gap between children on free school meals and the national average.

Rachel Wilcock, data scientist at Nesta said: “The findings are striking. They show that children on free school meals in some areas stand a better chance of reaching a good level of development than they might in other local authorities with similar geography, deprivation and demographics – we’re seeing a lot of variation within regions or even between neighbouring local authorities. We want to find out what’s happening in the areas that are bucking the trend despite a challenging set of circumstances. Could it be their early years services that are making the difference? If there are things that can be scaled to other, similar areas then there’s an opportunity to level up outcomes in local authorities around England.”

Nesta has committed to working in partnership with local authorities and the early years sector to close the gap between children who are eligible for free school meals and the national average. If England closed the gap, nearly 14,000 more children eligible for free school meals would move to a Good Level of Development at age five. This would give children from poor families a much better chance of getting the best out of their education and reduce the risk of them falling behind.

Louise Bazalgette said: “These are early findings but they suggest that some local areas are already well on their way to closing the gap. This gives us hope that it’s possible to make a big difference around the country by supporting local authorities to scale best practice from comparable areas.”

In the coming months, Nesta will be talking to English local authorities to build up a picture of their early years services. The hope is to develop plausible explanations for varying outcomes and to start to build a picture of promising practice that may be supportive to children’s early years outcomes in England.

Quotes from local authorities

Paul Senior, Director of Education at Hackney Council: "At Hackney, we believe the best outcomes for children are achieved through a close collaboration between the Council with schools and children's centres in a mixed system of academies, maintained, faith and free schools. The Council has maintained a focus on constant investment in the borough’s schools and children's centres, with new spaces to learn and play, alongside first-class facilities to inspire children, young people and education setting staff and leaders. "We believe the power to drive improvement and to maintain standards, ambition and inclusion in education lies at local authority level working in partnership with education system leaders, where, like Hackney, there is a proven track record of excellence, positive outcomes for learners and will. We must continue to be given government support, funding and powers to be enabled to continue to do so."

Cllr Joshua Garfield, Cabinet Member for Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning said: “The results of this research come as no surprise; children cannot concentrate on their learning if they are hungry. Families should never be forced to choose between paying for their child's school meals and turning on the heating or paying for other essential utilities. That's why we fund Eat For Free, ensuring every child in our Newham primary schools has a hot nutritious lunch every school day, saving families £500 per child per year.“ Our Healthy Schools programme collaborates with the Mayor of London's Whole School Health teams to ensure we know how to give every child the best start in life. We know it starts with food security; that's why we've called on the government to fund Free School Meals for all children up and down the country. Families need help to survive the recession and it is not fair that children's health, nutrition and education may be forced to bear the brunt in boroughs that do not fund universal free school meal provision."


Notes to editors

  1. For more information on the analysis or to speak to one of the experts involved, please contact Kieran Lowe, Media Manager, on 020 7438 2576 or [email protected].
  2. Maps and visual assets can be reused and credited to Nesta.
  3. There are many ways of grouping LAs together, for example the local authority interactive tool (LAIT) and the children’s services statistical neighbour benchmarking tool allows LAs to find their closest neighbour based on a number of characteristics. We used publicly available data to create our own grouping and to use a wider variety of data. The local authority interactive tool (LAIT) includes data on child protection, children’s health, pupil attainment and judgments from Ofsted, but we wanted to take into account the environment in which a child grows up and include more data on parental circumstances. We've clustered the LAs using a wide range of variables from the Fingertips Public Health England dataset and the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) Access to Healthy Assets and Hazards (AHAH) data. For more about the methodology, please visit the project page on the Nesta website.

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