Disadvantaged young people and the inner London effect — introduction

Bland title, interesting topic (and graphs), I promise!

Invariably, education statistics and research shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in England do worse than their better off peers. They start school behind, they do not catch up, and they end up less well qualified at 16. Even among those sufficiently well qualified for university, disadvantaged young people are less likely to get offered a place, and less likely to graduate even if they do. Shameless plug alert — a fuller picture of this story is presented in a report I wrote at Teach First.

But two things are often overlooked in these discussions. Firstly, only a minority of statistics the DfE produces are ever broken down by pupils’ free school meals status. Secondly, while “the London effect” is often acknowledged in passing, it’s easy to forget quite how much better the statistics are for disadvantaged young people if they live in inner London in particular.

This is the first in a semi-regular series of blogs to shed new light on these issues.

The plan is that when the Department for Education release statistics without an FSM breakdown, I’ll use the local authority level figures, and the existing data on how many young people in each local authority are FSM eligible, as a proxy. This will (hopefully) give us additional insight into how the educational experiences of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds differs from their better off peers.

Here are three things from the last fortnight that would otherwise be overlooked.

1 — GCSE equivalent qualifications

Last week’s GCSE results contained no new data on FSM pupils — this is due in January. But one thing we can compare is the use of “GCSE equivalent” (i.e. vocational) qualifications in different local authorities. The more FSM pupils a local authority has, the higher the proportion of all pupils’ attainment that is due to GCSE equivalent qualifications.

This doesn’t prove that FSM pupils are taking more GCSE equivalent qualifications — but the alternative would be that a higher proportion of the non-FSM pupils in areas with large numbers of FSM pupils are doing so, which seems unlikely. Given that historically some vocational qualifications aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (or even result in young people being paid less than if they hadn’t bothered) it is worthy of further investigation if disadvantaged young people are more likely to be studying them.

This is particularly the case given the inner London effect (the red dots on the plot above). Despite having some of the highest proportions of disadvantaged young people in the country, in inner London they are much more likely to be doing GCSEs than the national trend would suggest. Attainment is higher in London than any other English region, underlining still further that the use of GCSE equivalent qualifications in areas outside of inner London with lots of disadvantaged young people is of note.

2 — Early years

From attainment at 16 to the early years. Today’s figures on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile don’t get analysed by disadvantage at all. But once again, there is a strong correlation between the number of FSM pupils in an area, and the number of pupils starting school with the “good level of development” expected by the government — in areas with more poor pupils, fewer pupils are “school ready”.

As before, this doesn’t prove that poorer pupils are the ones who don’t reach a good level of development — but as before, the alternative would be that the more wealthier pupils in areas with large numbers of poorer pupils don’t reach a good level of development, which seems unlikely.

And as before, the inner London effect (red dots) is stark. In every inner London borough, a higher proportion of children have a good level of development after the early years than would be expected based on the trend from the rest of England. What are nurseries and early years settings doing in inner London that they aren’t doing elsewhere?

3 — Attendance

Also released today, attendance data. In my view, this is one of the most underappreciated issues in the education debate, given that an in-school intervention to support disadvantaged young people, like quality teaching or one-to-one support or a free lunch, can only work if young people are actually in school to benefit.

The headline figures on attendance are alarming: Absence rates are higher for pupils who are known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals. The overall absence rate for these pupils was 7%, compared to 4% for non-FSM pupils. The persistent absence rate for pupils who were eligible for FSM was more than twice the rate for pupils not eligible for FSM (21.3% and 8.3% respectively). That’s one in five FSM pupils missing more than one day per fortnight, the definition of persistent absence.

Looking in more detail at the persistent absence rate in secondary schools we see the now familiar pattern: more pupils are persistently absent in areas with larger numbers of FSM pupils, but inner London performs better than expected given the large numbers of those pupils.


On these three diverse topics we have correlation, not causation — but time and again it’s areas with lots of disadvantaged young people that are struggling. A few conclusions:

a) uncontroversial, but worth stating the obvious — areas with higher levels of disadvantage need more support so that outcomes match more advantaged areas.

b) there is nothing inevitable about the status quo — something about inner London is different and working, and a key question for policymakers is what can we do to spread it.

c) there are no easy answers to improving the life chances of disadvantaged young people — because it’s not just an attainment issue. It’s an attendance issue, it’s a mental health issue, it’s a behaviour/exclusion issue…

I’ll return to these themes as more data gets released. Next week — official data on the phonics screening check, which does get broken down by FSM status.

(For clarity it’s worth pointing out that these views are my own and not those of my employer)