Why are some pupils missing out on a free lunch?

Why are families in the South East, along with some others from across the country, ignoring the chance to increase their spending power by not taking up the free infant lunch programme on offer in schools? Many of the authorities with the lowest take up in the latest DfE statistics of census day are located in the South East. They include unitary authorities, such as Brighton & Hove, Slough, Reading, Medway and Milton Keynes and counties such as East Sussex and Oxfordshire. All these authorities had a take-up of less than 81% of pupils eating lunch on census day.

At the other end of the scale, Inner London averaged a nearly 91% take-up and Solihull managed to achieve just over 96% take-up. Now, I guess there may be some parents that regard the food on offer as not acceptable for culinary, cultural or dietary reasons, but it is difficult to see why so many parents in some authorities not only forgo an extra £400 or spending money, but presumably also shell out hard cash on creating meals for their children to eat instead. If they don’t think that the food on offer is good enough then they should be lobbying the governing body or MAT trustees for an improvement.

Now, I am sure some of the difference could be a result of how important the local authority still sees its role in education and thus in encouraging schools to provide meals that are attractive and nutritional. This may be less of a concern in areas with lots of academies and free schools.

It could also be that some of these families have children in schools where more emphasis is placed on the breakfast club than on lunch to ensure a healthy start to the day. Of course, locally high incidences of sickness in specific schools may also have played a part in an authority’s position in the rankings. However, it does seem that the further north you travel in England, the higher the take-up was, with London, and specifically the inner London boroughs, being the main exception to this rule of thumb analysis.

The should be sufficient data now available to identify whether pupils in schools with low take-up fare any differently at the end of Key State 1 than pupils in schools where take-up is much higher once  researchers have standardised for all other possible variables; a tough ask.

I guess, with the present funding problems facing schools, there won’t be any real pressure from government for a scheme to extend the free lunch arrangements to Key Stage 2 pupils and, no doubt, some politicians may see the whole exercise as an ineffective use of money, forgetting the benefits to both parents and children achieved by the was the scheme is resourced. The initiative to roll out the scheme for Key Stage 1 pupils was a Coalition government action with some parts of the Labour strongly supporting and other being either lukewarm or downright hostile to the idea.


We all do phonics now

An understanding of the place of phonics in early teaching seems to have become accepted practice among teachers. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/phonics-screening-check-and-key-stage-1-assessments-england-2016

The latest DfE publication of outcomes of phonic testing reveals that;

More than 4 in 5 (81%) pupils met the expected phonics standard in year 1 (6 year olds) in 2016, a 4 percentage point increase from 2015 when 77% of pupils achieved the expected standard. By the end of year 2 (age 7), more than 9 in 10 pupils (91%) met the standard in 2016, a 1 percentage point increase from 2015.

At the same time, under the new teacher assessment rules, there has been a fall in reported outcomes for the skill of writing. I suspect over the next few years there will be a real debate about the place of writing in early education. There is a role in helping to form and understand letters and also to develop the skill of communication. Will that last for the first ‘tablet’ generation? I suspect that children don’t see writing as an essential tool any more. It isn’t a skill they often see demonstrated in the home. Apart from writing your signature, when, reader, did you last pen a piece of script: possibly on your Christmas cards? This leads me to wonder about the future for written examinations? Not only will the memory test part be of less value, but if the handwriting skill isn’t seen as useful, what Twenty First century skills are we trying to test?

According to the DfE figures for England as a whole, being in small class at KS1 may help with reading, doesn’t seem to help with writing and makes no difference in mathematics skills achieved. Of course, none of this allows for parental help and the support of siblings. However, all the other features we know from past experience are repeated in the 2016 outcomes. Girls achieve higher scores overall than boys; pupils on free school meals achieve lower scores than other pupils, as do pupils with identified special needs at KS1. At this stage, those with English as a second language don’t do as well as native speakers, although we know that they can outperform as a group by later key stages.

The small sliver of good news for boys is that among pupils outperforming the expected standard in mathematics, boys outperform girls, but by a smaller margin than girls outperform boys in reading and writing. The other good news is that the gap between pupils on free school meals and other pupils continues to close, but at a slow rate of around a percentage point a year. With the living wage and assuming unemployment remains low, the number of children assessed at KS1 on free meals may well fall, making further reductions in the gap more of a challenge.

But, back to phonics. The gap between the best and worst local authorities, by end of year 2, is just eight percentage, points compared at a gap of 25% between the best and worst in writing. Sadly, Oxford, where I live, continues to perform badly, this despite five years of various interventions. The fact that these less well performing schools in Oxford will for the most part receive more funding under the new formula can only be good news, but not is the funds come from robbing cash from rural primary schools.