This data links pupil information with parental income in an attempt to increase our understanding of ordinary working families. It categorises around a third of school pupils using the label, although it states no clearly defined purpose for collecting the data for this large group of pupils. The statistics appear to show limited disadvantage in the educational outcomes for pupils from ‘ordinary working families.’ We know that Pupil Premium and Free School Meals eligible pupils show clear signs of educational disadvantage, and it is important that the government is in no way distracted from its task of improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged children.

Somewhere in the middle of the poverty-affluence spectrum there will always be a  group like ‘ordinary working families’, but the groups at either end of the income spectrum are the groups with the clearest differences in outcome. The pupils highlighted by this study will include many children who do not suffer the kinds of hardships likely to impact their education. ‘Ordinary working families’ have household incomes up to £33,000, and the majority will provide a satisfactory standard of living for their children.

If pupil data is to be linked to family income we feel it would be more useful to study low income families in a way that does not exclude the poorest, and which recognises that many ‘ordinary working families’ are in receipt of FSM and PP.

Linked to this point, we would question the validity of including FSM and PP as categorisations on a spectrum which is supposedly showing low to high income. Pupil Premium is not an income category – it includes adopted children, service children as well as children who were previously eligible for FSM but may now be in households on a higher income than many children in the next category. Nor does the use of FSM work in this context. The presentation of many of the charts (e.g. on p.40) would lead the reader to understand that children in the category ‘not in receipt of pupil premium in families with income below median’ are all better-off than the children in the FSM and PP categories. However, this is not necessarily the case because many low-income families do not apply for FSM.

The methodology presented in the document suggests that the government has household income data for children on FSM and PP, and so it is unclear why the FSM and PP designations are needed at all, and why all children are not categorised simply by income decile in order that valid comparisons can be made.

The various problems with the government’s approach inevitably lead us to ask why IDACI data is not being used for the purposes of this analysis. The government’s consultation on the national funding formula earlier this year specifically included a proposal to give ‘greater weighting towards areas with high concentrations of just managing families who do not typically qualify for FSM deprivation funding, through the use of a significant area-level deprivation factor (using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, IDACI)’. In other words, the government is satisfied that IDACI data provides a legitimate way of identifying and targeting ‘just about managing’ (subsequently ‘ordinary working’) families.

It is interesting to note that recent research conducted by UCL, Warwick and Bristol Universities specifically looked at the educational destinations of children from ‘just about managing’ families in selective systems using IDACI data, and reached very different conclusions to the government’s technical document. In particular, they found that “just about managing” families (taken as those in the range from the 20th to the 40th percentile of SES) have only a 12% chance of attending a grammar school. This highlights the ability for findings to be distorted not only by the type of data used but also by where category boundaries are drawn.

We would also raise concerns about the significant number of children missing from the data (12%) and the way the government proposes categorising them. “There are 832,000 pupils in families who do not receive Tax credits or other benefits, and are recorded as having no income. Following investigation, they are being treated as having above median gross household income.” (p.16) The document provides very limited justification for this treatment. It seems highly likely that this group will include many households working purely in the informal economy and therefore unknown to HMRC and DWP. These households would be likely to be on below median income, and some would be very poor. Where they sit on the income spectrum could substantially alter some of the modelling that has been done in the technical document, and the government’s proposed approach of treating them all as affluent is likely to have introduced a significant distortion.

Finally, it is a cause for concern that this research has already been used for political ends. The data in this report was used to promote selective education in the Conservative party manifesto. The statistic that was used was also inaccurate, as highlighted by Professor Alice Sullivan of the UCL Institute of Education.The manifesto point made an incorrect assumption about the pupils attending grammar schools by ignoring the clear overlap between Pupil Premium eligible families (working parents formerly on benefits) and below median income families. The data was misinterpreted in a way that discounted disadvantaged pupils entirely.

We appreciate the possibilities of improving education by linking income and pupil data, but we feel  the ‘ordinary working families’ label is a political construct. This is not a phrase in common public use, the concept of ‘ordinary’ is inherently subjective and it seems likely this definition will be misinterpreted to assume these are low income families with a clear need for assistance.  We do not see how defining this group of pupils benefits policy making or improves educational outcomes for children.