13th April 2017

EPI responds to consultation on supporting ‘ordinary working families’

The Secretary of State for Education has this morning spoken on the topic of “ordinary working families”, the expansion of selective education, and the launch of the consultation “Analysing family circumstances and education”.

The consultation document puts the challenges facing educators into sharp focus:

  • The Department for Education’s new definition of Ordinary Working Families (OWFs) fails to identify a group that is educationally disadvantaged.
  • The case for a continued focus on the Pupil Premium group is clear and should be prioritised. The differences in outcomes between children from OWFs and their more affluent peers are relatively small compared to the large penalties experienced by disadvantaged pupils.
  • Grammar schools are dominated by the most affluent, squeezing out the poorest. An expansion in selection is unlikely to benefit OWFs in the way that the Government suggests.

The Department for Education’s definition of OWFs identifies in effect the ‘average child’ – the group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools. Crucially, however, the child of the OWF experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average.

This comes about because the slightly smaller group of children we typically think of as ‘poor’ have outcomes that are so low that they pull down the average for all children – these disadvantaged children are especially vulnerable in an educational sense as well as in a socio-economic sense.

This can be seen clearly from the much larger gap in attainment and progress between children eligible for the pupil premium and those in the bottom income decile, than is found at any of the boundaries between income deciles (including the boundary between OWFs and families with income above the median). Disadvantaged pupils are a distinct group based on attainment whereas OWFs are not.

What this means for education policy is that the pupil premium and free school meals for deprived children are effectively targeted at need; they reach a group that is distinctly vulnerable.

EPI’s previous research shows that the most persistently disadvantaged pupils are distinctly vulnerable within the pupil premium group, with large and increasing progress gaps in secondary schools. This makes it clear that it would be wrong to shift our focus away from the existing disadvantaged groups, because we have yet to overcome the profound challenges they face during childhood.

The Department for Education’s analysis also demonstrates that selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. The proportion of pupils in selective schools that are from OWFs being similar to other schools is not surprising given the range of pupils and attainment that this group covers.

EPI’s research on selection shows that as the number of grammar school places increases, the benefits for those that secure a place falls and the penalty for those that miss out increases. This is key. The mathematics of selection mean that the majority of OWFs will not get into grammar schools even in highly selective areas – indeed, the DfE’s data show that over half of the places are taken by families with above-median income, and by definition only a minority (typically around a quarter) of children can get into selective schools.

Commenting on the consultation, Jo Hutchinson, EPI’s Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners said:

The pupil premium and free school meals for deprived children are effectively targeted at need; they reach a group that is distinctly vulnerable. The Department for Education’s own analysis shows that it would be a terrible mistake to shift our focus away from the existing disadvantaged groups. We have yet to overcome the profound challenges they face during childhood. 

“There are simply too many Ordinary Working Families for any potential winners from selection to outnumber the losers, and, as the Department for Education’s own data show, they are not a particularly vulnerable group to begin with.”

“We must acknowledge the implications of this new analysis, and not be side-tracked by politically convenient soundbites that side-step the full truth about grammar schools, and about the impact of poverty on children’s education.”