Skip to main content

Free School Meals Data has Potential to be Misleading According to St Mary's Research

St Mary’s research presents evidence that Catholic schools in England and Wales recruit disproportionate numbers of economically deprived pupils.

Free School Meals (FSM) data published by the Department for Education is an unreliable indicator of socio-economic deprivation among school children, a new report published today shows.

Research by academics at St Mary’s University presents evidence that Catholic schools in England and Wales recruit disproportionate numbers of both economically deprived and ethnic minority pupils. This is in contrast to the perception presented by campaigners opposed to faith schools using FSM data, arguing that faith schools are socially selective.

The report – The Take-up of Free School Meals in Catholic Schools in England and Wales – reveals that while labelled “FSM eligibility”, Government figures do not include pupils who are eligible for FSM, but who do not in fact claim them. As such, this data only reflects actual FSM uptake and has the potential to be very misleading when used to determine deprivation and poverty in a particular school.

For example, the report demonstrates that while FSM figures convey a comparatively low number of pupils from deprived backgrounds in Catholic schools in England (12.8% of children in receipt of FSM compared with 15% of all state schools), alternative deprivation measures such as the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), show students from the most deprived backgrounds are over-represented in Catholic schools (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 whole).

The report identifies a number of reasons why families entitled to Free School Meals may not always claim them. These include:

  • Lack of clear and precise information around eligibility and the application process;
  • Fluctuating circumstances – particularly for parents and guardians in low-paid and temporary jobs – which make multiple applications for benefits burdensome;
  • Cultural perceptions of welfare, sometimes as a result of hostile discourse against migrants and benefit claimants;
  • Language and literacy barriers to the application process;
  • Stigma around FSM and the ease with which children can be identified;
  • The dining environment and choice of food which some find unappealing.

 The report concludes that FSM data is reductive and misleading as a measure of deprivation. It leads to inaccurate perceptions of schools and impacts the targeting of support, like the pupil premium, which is allocated only on the basis of FSM uptake as a result.

To address this problem, the report recommends that:

  • Government should stop mislabelling FSM uptake as FSM eligibility;
  • Schools provide clear and concise information on FSM throughout the year, including verbally for those lacking literacy skills;
  • FSM information should be provided in different languages;
  • A cashless system of payment should be available in schools where it’s currently possible to address identification of FSM pupils;
  • The award of FSM should be incorporated into the assessment of other benefits;
  • The eligibility income threshold for FSM should be increased.

 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.

“The Department for Education has itself confirmed that its statistics on ‘FSM eligibility’ are not, in fact, a measure of eligibility at all. Since other indicators strongly suggest that Catholic schools over-recruit economically disadvantaged students, this raises a number of possibilities, which we explored in research with parents and head teachers in the Catholic dioceses of Cardiff, Leeds, and Portsmouth. Firstly, we offer reasons why significant number of eligible pupils might not, perhaps for practical or cultural reasons, in fact claim FSM. Secondly, we argue against the widespread assumption that families who do not qualify for FSM should thereby be considered affluent.

“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.

“At a time when schools are facing funding struggles, a multi-faceted approach is needed to ensure that children from deprived backgrounds, who are currently unaccounted for by the system – the ‘hidden poor’ – receive the targeted support they need.”


Notes to Editors


For further information please contact:

Olivia Parish

Email:, Direct Tel: +44 (0)20 7025 2310

Helen Evans

Email:, Direct Tel: +44 (0)20 8240 8249

Media enquiries

For media enquiries, please contact:

St Mary's University logo

Press team

020 8240 8262