Children in summer clothes with back packs walking.

Midsummer Right Scheming

Midsummer 2021, and once again a Government report is expressing concern for working-class pupils – but seemingly only the White onesi.  The statistical ‘data driven’ evidence in the report suggest objectivity and ‘fact’ but the obvious cherry-picking of evidence, seeming lack of concern about statistical accuracy and subjective bias in the discussion bely such naïve perceptions.   Statistics and racism have history.  From its’ eugenics origins, statistics have been used to obfuscate, camouflage and even legitimate racist inequitiesii.  This history requires quantitative research to adopt a critical eye if it is to avoid perpetuating crimes of the past.  Scholars in the UKiii and USiv have published around this recently and in 2016 Gillborn, et alv outlined five ‘QuantCrit’ principles to help guide quantitative enquiry in helping challenge and change racial inequality.   HC 85 along with the Sewell/CRED reportvi and the Timpson review of school exclusionvii are recent examples of Government reports that have lacked this critical eye.  This seems common around the politics of statistics; whether due to empirical naivety/ignorance or to a more pernicious political agenda, is unclear.

Others have highlighted cherry-picking by pointing towards the lack of attention given to school exclusions, A levels, access to Russell group universities and degree outcomes but in this blog, I want to focus on a couple of problems with the use of Free School Meal (FSM) status as a proxy for working class.  The first problem has been widely discussed whilst the second is perhaps less well known.  I finally reflect on the lack of attention paid to structural causes of race and class inequality in the report and highlight one that deserves more political attention.

First, as acknowledged at the previous educational committee into White working-class underachievementviii and by the four Labour members of the 2021 committeeix, the use of a free school mean (FSM) status proxy for working class is misleading.  In summary, whilst around 14% of white pupils are classed as ‘FSM’, 35% were officially classed as ‘working class’ by the official National Statistics – Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC)x in the 2011 UK census and the British Social Attitudes survey has consistently found most respondents to self-identify as ‘working class’xi. Therefore, the educational struggles of a small group of disadvantaged pupils are politically ‘projected’ to misinform (potentially the majority of) white parents.   The use of white working-class within the title and limited acknowledgement of the problems of the FSM proxy in the main report might fit a political zeitgeist but also serves to disseminate ignorance.

Second, it is important to note that FSM is NOT a measure of eligibility for Free School Meals.  If a pupil is eligiblexii, to be counted as ‘FSM’, parents must register their eligibility with the school.   Therefore, FSM distinguishes pupils who are eligible and claiming FSM from their peers who are not eligible or who are eligible but do not claim.  This is an important detail.  There is a known undercount built into FSM; Iniesta-Martinez and Evansxiii reported an estimated 200,000 children aged 4-15 were entitled to free school meals but did not claim them; 3% of all pupils aged 4-15 in England and 14% of pupils entitled to FSM.  Large geographical variations in the FSM under-claim were also found with nearly one-quarter of entitled pupils not claiming in the South East compared with 2% in the North East of England with factors such as stigma, area deprivation (lower deprivation= greater under-claim) and school composition identified as influences.

In summary, the FSM proxy is an inaccurate measure of pupil disadvantage and an invalid measure of ‘working class’ – but its continued use seems to suit the political right in what appears to be an attempt to divide the poor into race lines.

Socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities have long been a feature of the English education system.  It is therefore surprising to find no mention of ‘the system’ in the six factors listed in HC 2021.   One structural reality that seems in need of closer attention is between- and within-school pupil segregationxiv.   Between-school pupil segregation remains in terms of private /state schools and the last remaining Grammar school Local Authorities.  In ‘comprehensive’ state schools, within-school segregation of pupils manifests as the widespread use of setting or streaming in most core subjects from the start of secondary (commonly from primary in mathematics).   Such policies and practices have little/no educational justification but there is evidence of the academic and social harm that they causexv.  The groupings resulting from pupil segregation are not socioeconomically or ethnically balanced, and thus class and race inequality is engineered into the English education system.   For substantial progress to be made for educational equity in England, segregation will need to be removedxvi.  De-engineering a system built on discredited beliefs on measurable innate intelligence would also bring the benefit of releasing the true potential of teachers along with the hopes of parents and pupils.

Written by Sean Demack, Principal Research Fellow, Sheffield Institute of Education


Notes & References

i HC 85 (2021). The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it – Education Select Committee. London

ii Zuberi, T. (2001) Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie.  University of Minnesota Press

iii Gillborn, D., Warmington, P. & Demack, S. (2018) QuantCrit: education, policy, ‘Big Data’ and principles for a critical race theory of statistics Race Ethnicity & Education 21(2) pp158-179

iv Garcia, N.M., Lopez, N. & Velez, V.N. (2018) QuantCrit: Rectifying quantitative methods through critical race theory. Race Ethnicity & Education 21(2) pp149-157

v See iii above and Gillborn, Warmington & Demack (2016) Magic Numbers? Education policy, ‘Big Data’ and a critical race theory of statistics. AERA 2016, Washington April8-12 2016.

vi CRED (2021) Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report.  Available at

vii CP 92 (2019) Timpson Review of School Exclusion available at

viii HC 142 (2014). Evidence Summary on the Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children – Education Select Committee. London

and HC 647 (2014). Government Response to Evidence on the Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children – Education Select Committee. London

ix See HC 85 (2021), page 64.

x NS-SEC .. See Figure 6 here

xi BSAS (2015) British Social Attitudes 33 available here

xii Eligibility for Free School meals depends on whether a pupil lives in a household in receipt of specific benefits (see here: – page 7).

xiii Iniesta-Martinez, S. & Evans, H. (2012) Pupils not claiming free school meals.  DFE research brief DFE-RB235 available at

xiv Demack, S. (2021) The statistics of pupil segregation in England.  Radical Statistics 129 (forthcoming, will be available here: )

xv EEF (2018) Setting and Streaming Evidence review, EEF Toolkit, available here

xvi Gorard, S. & Siddiqui, N. (2018) Grammar schools in England: a new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes. British Journal of Sociology of Education 39 (7). pp. 909-924






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