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School Meals

Volume 409: debated on Friday 18 July 2003

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills (1) what plans he has to change the criteria for measuring school socio-economic position from the percentage of children receiving school meals; and if he will make a statement; [125225](2) what assessment he has made of the effect on comparisons for schools socio-economic position of a drop in the number of children receiving free school meals; and if he will make a statement. [125226]

The Department's Annual Schools' Census (ASC) collects information on the numbers of pupils 'known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM)' as a consequence of local authorities (and schools) legal duty to provide them. The ASC does not collect any other information on the socio-economic circumstances of individual pupils or, in aggregate, of schools.The Department is investigating whether information from other departments' datasets can be linked in ways which preserve necessary data confidentialities but provide measures additional to FSM that improve the appropriateness and robustness of socio-economic comparisons of schools.There has been a trend downward over the last few years in the numbers of children 'known to be eligible for FSM', due in part to increased employment. About 80 per cent. of children who are entitled to make a claim for a free meal do so, but the rate varies from school to school over time depending on pupil and parental preferences and economic circumstances. Direct, and fair, interpretations of FSM comparisons within and between schools are therefore complicated and complex.The Department's "Autumn Package of Pupil Performance Information" has shown since 1996 national attainment benchmarks for groups of schools with broadly similar levels of FSM. These are used by schools to gauge their recent relative performances and by OFSTED in discussions with schools during inspection. Schools compare their performances with those of schools in adjacent benchmark groups and bring to bear their detailed knowledge of pupils and their schools in those discussions.