Measuring the proportion of pupils on free school meals is an increasingly unreliable way of gauging poverty rates and the fairness of admissions policies, the BBC reports.

Research conducted by St. Mary’s University in south-west London, has shown that free school meals can be a ‘misleading’ marker of deprivation amongst school pupils, failing to shed light on the ‘hidden poor’.

Free school meals have long been used as a way of profiling a school’s socio-economic profile, but this latest research argues that the measure does not reflect changes in the labour market and financial pressures on low-income working families.

The study warns of the need to support the ‘hidden poor’.

Official figures published recently, show that two-thirds of children in poverty are in working families.

‘Working poor’

The study sampled pupils receiving free school meals in Catholic schools in England and Wales.

This sampling is significant because faith schools have faced accusations of being socially selective- in Catholic schools, about 12 percent of pupils receive free meals compared with the state school average of 14 percent.

The research showed that if the same schools are assessed by another official measure of poverty- the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index- the trend of lower rates of poorer pupils in Catholic schools is reversed. The study showed that the schools had disproportionately high levels of pupils from the most deprived areas.

St. Mary’s is itself a Catholic university.

Free school meals are used to decide how much money schools receive in the pupil premium, targeting funding at disadvantaged youngsters.

The research by Prof Stephen Bullivant also highlights that the measurement of free school meals pupils is based on take-up, rather than eligibility.

There are parents who might be eligible but who do not accept free meals – because of a stigma around children being identified or because of “cultural” reasons for not wanting to accept welfare.

The research warns that focusing on free school meal eligibility can provide an inaccurate picture of the social intake of the rest of a school.

“Free school meals eligibility is taken as ‘poor’ children – and any not getting free meals are seen to be affluent and middle class,” said Prof Bullivant.

But he says many families face “precarious lives” and are “struggling to make ends meet”, but will not show up in free meals figures.

“Class inequality is a real problem in Britain affecting children’s attainment. This data fails to understand different degrees of poverty,” says Prof Bullivant.

“At a time when schools are facing funding struggles, a multi-faceted approach is needed to ensure that children from deprived backgrounds, who are currently unaccounted for by the system – the ‘hidden poor’ – receive the targeted support they need.”