The ‘ordinary working families’ fallacy



This post explores the emerging definition of learners from ‘ordinary working families’ and the evidence published to date about their educational performance and how well they are served in the education system.

It examines how learners from ordinary working families (hereafter referred to as ‘OWF learners’) fit within the broader visions for social mobility set out in recent speeches by the Prime Minister and her Education Secretary.

It questions why ministers are adopting what appears an overly complex hierarchy of disadvantage, distinguishing:

  • Above median income (AMI) learners: comparatively advantaged learners from families with equivalised household incomes above the median. Those from the wealthiest decile are occasionally singled out as a discrete sub-group.
  • OWF learners, from families with equivalised household incomes below the median and who are ineligible for the pupil premium.
  • Pupil premium learners: eligible for the deprivation element of pupil premium on the basis of free school meal (FSM) eligibility during the last six years or being in care, but not presently receiving FSM.
  • FSM learners: the subset of pupil premium learners presently eligible for and receiving FSM.

It explains how the Government’s own technical consultation document provides evidence that:

  • OWF learners are far better served than both pupil premium and FSM learners – and significantly outperform them too.
  • OWF learners are somewhat less well-served than AMI learners and underperform by comparison, but only to a limited extent. (These differences are of course more substantial when comparison is with learners from the wealthiest decile).
  • OWF learners are thoroughly well-represented within the tranche of 163 existing grammar schools, whereas both categories of disadvantaged learners are heavily under-represented and AMI learners are very much over-represented. This contradicts earlier analysis published by the Sutton Trust.

Taken together this evidence suggests that, while there might be political mileage for the Tories in prioritising ‘ordinary working families’ – and possibly justification for targeted interventions in other areas of social policy – the case for educational intervention in support of OWF learners is weak, especially when educational budgets are so heavily constrained.

The case for reflecting in funding allocations the distribution of OWF learners between schools and geographical areas is also open to challenge since it risks diverting scarce resources from the properly disadvantaged learners who most need such support.


Evolution of the policy

Prime Ministerial launch

In her speech ‘Britain, the great meritocracy’ (September 2016), Prime Minister May strove to put clear blue water between her political vision and that of her predecessor.

She spoke of establishing:

‘…a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow’.

May does not intend a pure meritocracy since she acknowledges that, to maximise our national stock of human capital, equality of opportunity is required alongside ‘talent’ (aka ability) and hard work (aka effort).

Action is required to remove the obstacles to success faced by some learners, to level the playing field for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Pure meritocracy would be an inefficient waste of human capital.

But she argues that equality of opportunity must be extended beyond those from disadvantaged backgrounds to ‘ordinary working class families’. Indeed, she proclaims a significant change in priorities, creating:

‘…a truly meritocratic Britain that puts the interests of ordinary, working class people first.’

so, by implication, ahead of the interests of their disadvantaged peers.

The introduction of this new Tory nirvana involves:

‘…recalibrating how we approach policy development to ensure that everything we do as government helps to give a fair chance to those who are just getting by – while still helping those who are even more disadvantaged.’

Here are encapsulated the principal tensions at the heart of May’s vision.

First, it is counter-intuitive to put the interests of ‘ordinary, working class people’ ahead of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed it is fundamentally inequitable.

Secondly, if support for properly disadvantaged learners is to be maintained at existing levels, providing complementary support for OWF learners will require additional resources at a point when the education budget is already under severe pressure.

The only alternative is to stretch the existing resource further, so reducing the proportion of funding dedicated to properly disadvantaged learners.

May continues:

‘If you’re eligible for free school meals, and your parents earn less than £16,000 a year, then there is extra help on offer. That is good and right – and as long as I am Prime Minister, the pupil premium for the poorest children will remain.

But the free school meals measure only captures a relatively small number of pupils, whose parents are on income-related benefits.

If we are going to make the change we need and build a great meritocracy in Britain, we need to broaden our perspective and do more for the hidden disadvantaged: children whose parents are on modest incomes, who do not qualify for such benefits but who are, nevertheless, still only just getting by.

If you’re earning 19, 20, 21 thousand pounds a year, you’re not rich. You’re not well off. And you should know you have our support too.

At the moment there is no way to differentiate between the school experience of children from these families and those from the wealthiest 10%.

Policy has been skewed by the focus only on those in receipt of free school meals, when the reality is that there are thousands of children from ordinary working class families who are being let down by the lack of available good school places.

Putting this right means finding a way to identify these children and measuring their attainment and progress within the school system. That work is underway and is central to my vision of a school system that truly works for everyone.’

Note that:

  • May appears to distinguish FSM learners from OWF learners, but rather downplays the existence of pupil premium learners, because their inclusion would undermine the statement that ‘only a relatively small number of pupils’ is involved. Her commitment to continued pupil premium funding relates to ‘the poorest children’ (undefined). The first stage funding formula consultation confirmed that the eligibility criteria for the premium would remain unchanged for as long as the pupil premium budget is protected, but that is only until FY2019-20. The 2017 Conservative manifesto says only ‘We will continue to protect the Pupil Premium to support those who need it’. This gives sufficient wiggle room to enable them to redistribute the premium in favour of OWF learners.
  • At this early stage May defines OWF learners according to gross household income – setting the parameters between £19,000 and £21,000 – and compares them against families with a gross household income in the top decile. This creates a false distinction which does not account for the majority of AMI learners sandwiched between OWF learners and the wealthiest decile. These definitions have changed considerably since, which has significantly increased the proportion of those deemed OWF learners. The ‘just getting by’ concept has not been properly quantified.

Some six months later, May suggested that the 2017 Spring Budget would support her objective by providing additional funding for free schools:

‘If we are to give our children and grandchildren a fair chance to succeed in an ever more competitive world, we have to build a future where every child can access a good school place. That means decisively shifting Britain’s education system and building a great meritocracy so that children from ordinary working families are given the chances their richer contemporaries take for granted. Wednesday’s Spring Budget takes the next steps in making this a reality and building a country that truly does work for everyone.’

Free schools are presumably assumed to support OWF learners by securing more school choice and diversity of provision, in the form of more school places rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, especially in areas where these are comparatively thin on the ground.

But this argument depends on several contestable assumptions about the location and quality of free schools. We do not have data showing the incidence of OWF learners at free schools.


The 2016 Green Paper

The prime ministerial line is followed extremely closely in the education green paper ‘Schools that work for everyone’ (September 2016).

This also argues that the ‘ever 6 FSM’ criterion:

‘…captures a relatively small number of pupils whose parents have been in receipt of income related benefits, linked to the local labour market in the past six years.’

It goes on to give only the January 2016 eligibility rate for free school meals – 14.3% – rather than the ‘ever 6 FSM’ rates for deprivation pupil premium in state-funded schools which for 2016-17 were 24.7% for pupils in primary year groups and 28.5% for those in secondary year groups.

This is self-evidently not ‘a relatively small number’ since one in four learners qualifies as disadvantaged on the basis of pupil premium.

The green paper goes on to say that schools:

‘…should take greater account of those children of people on modest incomes, who do not qualify for such benefits but who are nevertheless just about managing. These are ordinary families, who have a job but do not always have job security; have their own home, but worry about paying the mortgage. They can just about manage but are concerned at the cost of living and getting their children into a good school. Children from these families are not necessarily well-served by the education system.’

May’s comparison with ‘a child from the wealthiest 10% of families’ is also repeated.

In the chapter on selection the green paper adds for good measure:

We believe there is a case for looking at the wider impact of selective education of those on low incomes or who just about manage.’

It also heralds provision within the proposed national funding formula:

‘The schools funding formula should recognise that there are additional costs associated with meeting the needs of pupils from families that are just about managing and pupils with low prior attainment… We will ensure that the formula rewards those schools that support schools with a higher proportion of lower attaining pupils and those from less wealthy households. We will be consulting shortly on the value and weighting to be attached to these factors.’

So, in the short term at least, the redistribution of funding towards OWF learners will be undertaken within the funding formula rather than via pupil premium.

Finally the green paper confirms that:

‘The Government wants to develop a way to identify the group of people who are ‘just about managing’ in order to understand the impact of policy on those falling just above the eligibility threshold for free school meals. We want to work with experts and specialists to identify the best and most robust way to identify this group and measure their attainment and progress in the school system.’

The 2017 technical consultation document records the outcomes of this process.


National Funding Formula

The stage 2 consultation document on the national funding formula (December 2016) duly included proposals to adjust the additional needs component by increasing the amount targeted towards deprivation and:

Include a 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). This will help to ensure that we are supporting all those whose background may create a barrier to their education, not only those with a history of free school meal (FSM) eligibility.

It proposes combining three different deprivation indicators to create a three-level hierarchy – FSM, pupil premium and OWF learners (though these are presented in a different order):

  • Pupil premium learners, attracting per-pupil funding of £540 for primary pupils and £785 for secondary pupils, on top of the pupil premium rates (£1,320 for primary and £935 for secondary).
  • FSM learners, attracting additional per pupil funding of £440 for primary and secondary pupils alike. Those qualifying will attract this on top of the ‘ever 6’ rate, giving total per pupil funding of £980 for primary pupils and £1,225 for secondary pupils.

These two pupil-level deprivation factors account for 5.4% of the national schools block budget. Additionally, there is a third factor:

  • Area-level disadvantage, measured by IDACI. Areas’ IDACI scores have been revised to be constant for five years. All six IDACI bands are deployed, the highest (Band A – most deprived) attracting £575 for primary and £810 for secondary; the lowest (Band F) attracting £200 for primary and £290 for secondary.

This accounts for 3.9% of the national schools block budget. The consultation document argues that it has twin functions:

‘…recognising the double disadvantage that pupils can face when they grow up in a disadvantaged area and in a disadvantaged household’

But also supporting OWF learners, by providing:

‘…additional support to children in families who face significant obstacles to accessing the same educational opportunities as their peers, but whose family income means they are not eligible for free school meals.’

The six IDACI bands together account for 44% of all learners.

According to the EPI, the adjustment of the formula to cater for OWF learners has a redistributive effect which favours them over disadvantaged learners:

‘…the redistribution of the basic per pupil amounts, the use of wider area-based measures of deprivation and the increased quantum of funding for pupils with low prior attainment means that funding actually shifts from the most disadvantaged pupils and schools towards the so called ‘just about managing’ group.’

Even if pupil premium eligibility is unchanged, resource will be diverted away from the most disadvantaged to the rather less disadvantaged, so bringing about the inequitable outcome implicit in May’s speech.

It remains to be seen whether this will survive the consultation process, but there is scant evidence in the technical consultation document to support such redistribution.


The Social Mobility Commission

In its most recent ‘state of the nation’ report (November 2016) the Social Mobility Commission commented briefly on so-called ‘treadmill families’, defined elsewhere in its report as ‘those in the bottom two income quintiles’:

‘Broadly, there have been two traditional schools of thought – one has focused on improving life chances for the very poorest families, and the other on lifting bright children into top schools and universities. Each has had its own specific policy agenda. Both are important and should continue. But a broader approach to social reform is needed. One which focuses on people who are not in extreme poverty but are usually in work. These treadmill families are running harder and harder but simply standing still. Those struggling to make the sort of progress that previous generations did are a majority not a minority in Britain. Their interests should be at the heart of a new governmentwide drive to open up opportunities for their aspirations to be met.’

While the Commission appears broadly to approve the Prime Ministerial direction of travel it has not published any material evidence supporting this position.


Greening’s early speeches

In January 2017 Education Secretary Justine Greening gave a somewhat belated speech setting out her own vision.

In ‘Education at the core of social mobility’, she establishes an initial connection with May’s agenda:

‘…right at the core of this government’s ambition is building what the Prime Minister called a shared society, and that means driving social mobility for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those just-managing families: breaking the link between a person’s background and where they get to in life.’

But then proceeds to set out her own rather different priorities:

  • Tackling geographic disadvantage through the opportunity areas programme, with support from the national funding formula.
  • Prioritising long-term capacity building, through investment in teacher recruitment, training, deployment and professional development, as well as ‘identifying and spreading evidence-based practice to build capacity and drive better outcomes, especially for the less advantaged’.
  • Ensuring that the education system prepares people for work, by strengthening technical education and skills training, as well as improving standards in the FE sector

She does not explain how these would prioritise or address the needs of OWF learners.

They are not mentioned either in her two follow-up speeches ‘Teachers – the experts driving social mobility’ (February 2017) and ‘Teacher development key to school improvement’ (March 2017).

In ‘Unlocking the potential of a new generation’ (March 2017) she emphasises universality, arguing that social mobility will (somehow) benefit all learners regardless of background:

‘And when I talk about social mobility, I don’t just mean helping the most disadvantaged to do better and I don’t just mean closing the attainment gaps in schools, absolutely vital though both of these things are. I am talking about something that to me is much more profound in nature.

By social mobility I mean stripping away the barriers that anyone faces, so that everybody all over the country, and of many backgrounds, can go as far as their talents mean they’re able to, that they get the best and most stretching education or training, and make the transition into and upwards through a great career.’

But still there is nothing specific about OWF learners.


The technical consultation document

The technical consultation ‘Analysing family circumstances and education’ (April 2017) reports progress on the work mentioned in the green paper, to identify ‘the best and most robust way’ of identifying OWF learners.

The document alludes to discussions ‘with the education sector and academics to help our thinking in developing these measures’, but does not provide further detail or specify who has been involved.

The consultation sets out:

‘…indicative findings from the analysis which are starting to emerge but caution should be taken in drawing definitive conclusions from these findings until we have completed further work.’

But the magnitude of this ‘health warning’ should not be exaggerated.

Although the document identifies several methodological shortcomings, the combined effect appears comparatively marginal, unlikely to change radically the analysis set out here.

Moreover the consultation is designed to refine the preferred methodology, rather than inviting respondents to suggest how it might be rethought from first principles. There is clearly no intention of abandoning this particular approach.



The principal components of the methodology set out in the document are:

  • Matching pupil data from the National Pupil Database (NPD) with DWP data on child benefit and housing benefit and with HMRC data on income tax and tax credits.
  • Calculating ‘equivalised household incomes’ which take account of benefits received and adjust gross household income to reflect household size and composition. This approach is adopted from DWP’s analysis of UK income distribution. It applies weightings of 0.67 for a first adult, 0.33 for a second adult, 0.33 for every child aged 14 and over and 0.2 for every child aged under 14. Weekly net income is divided by the total weighting to give equivalised weekly net income. The document establishes the boundary between OWF learners and AMIs as a median household equivalised income of £20,000. The text explains that this would equate to an unadjusted household income of £33,000 for a two-parent family with two teenage children, or £17,000 for a lone parent family with one younger child.
  • Adjustments made for housing costs, using historical data from the Family Resources Survey inflated to current prices. These have been used to calculate an average housing cost for each local authority district which is then subtracted from family income before equivalisation, as set out above.

The ‘equivalised household income’ calculation reveals that, before accounting for housing costs:

  • Some 35% of learners (about 2.5m) in state-funded schools have a family income above the median – AMI learners. This includes 832,000 learners from families with no recorded employee tax income, benefits income or tax credits, all of whom are assumed to fall into this category.
  • A further 35% (so again 2.5m) in state-funded schools have a family income below the median but are not eligible for pupil premium – OWF learners.
  • 28% of learners are in receipt of pupil premium, of which 1.1m (15% of all learners in state-funded schools) are FSM learners and 1.0m (13% of all learners) are not currently receiving FSM, so are pupil premium learners.
  • 2% have unknown income

Hence the Government estimates some 63% of all learners in state-funded schools – almost two in three – are either disadvantaged or OWF learners.

The preferred methodology creates a ‘cliff edge’ distinction between OWF and disadvantaged learners, in the sense that a marginal increase in equivalised income would shift a family from one category to the other. But the exact positioning of the cliff varies according to the size and composition of the family.

Given that family income shifts up and down – and the composition of many family units changes regularly, as further children are born, couples separate or lone parents cohabit – it is highly likely that a substantial proportion of families will move across one of these boundaries at least once during their children’s education.

We do not yet know anything about the relative stability of the OWF population – the level of ‘churn’ that can be expected and how this might be affected by other variables.

The final housing cost element is methodologically the most suspect link in the chain, so the bulk of the analysis ignores it.

But two graphs demonstrate that average Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores before and after housing cost adjustments are almost identical, implying that this will hold for all other elements of the analysis.

There are three strands to this analysis:

  • School performance by ‘family equivalised income decile’
  • Geographical distribution of OWF learners and
  • Between-school distribution and performance of OWF learners as a group, compared with AMI, pupil premium and FSM learners.

All the data relates to AY2015/16. The first and last strands make no allowance for housing costs; the second includes two parallel datasets.


Income deciles

The ‘family equivalised income decile’ data shows the expected performance distribution, with both categories of disadvantaged learner under-performing OWF learners from families in the lowest deciles of median household income, and each successive income decile outperforming its immediate predecessor.

The only apparent blip in this pattern is that the bottom household equivalised income decile (£0-10K) tends to outperform the next lowest (£10-15K) by a small margin. The document hypothesises that this might be attributable to as yet unresolved methodological shortcomings.

This relationship applies in relation to: the percentage of learners achieving the expected KS2 standard in reading, writing and maths combined; the average KS2 progress score in reading, writing and maths; the average Attainment 8 score; the average Progress 8 score; the percentages entering and achieving the EBacc; and the percentages achieving 5+ A*-C grades including GCSEs in English and maths.

The distinction between disadvantaged and other learners is particularly stark in relation to progress scores, both primary and secondary.

Progress scores for disadvantaged learners are markedly negative while those for learners from families with even the lowest equivalised household income hover around zero, or slightly above zero.


Geographical distribution

The data on geographical distribution shows that the lowest income deciles are most heavily represented ‘outside urban centres in the North and East of England’.


‘The housing costs adjustment increases the percentage of pupils in London and other inner city areas who are below median income.’

The proportion of OWF learners within Opportunity Areas is broadly in line with the national distribution, varying between 28% and 41%, compared with the national figure of 35%. In three-quarters of Opportunity Areas this proportion is within five percentage points of the national figure.

Conversely, the proportion of disadvantaged learners (both categories combined) varies between 24% and 44% compared with a national average of 28%. And, more tellingly, in seven of the 12 Areas, the proportion of disadvantaged learners exceeds the national figure by more than five percentage points.

Despite this, the text claims:

‘Almost all of these areas see higher proportions of pupils from…below median income families than the national average. This underscores the Department’s focus on these areas, and their need for additional support so that these pupils can achieve better standards of living than their parents.’

Well, up to a point. But if one of the selection criteria for Opportunity Areas had been the incidence of OWF learners it seems likely that a rather different set of Areas would have been selected.


OWF learners relative to the other groups

This most substantive strand of the analysis shows that:

  • OWF learners are more likely than disadvantaged learners (both groups) to be White or Asian, but significantly less likely to be Black or Mixed. OWF learners are also more likely than disadvantaged learners to have English as an Additional Language (EAL), but only if they are from two-parent families rather than lone-parent families.
  • Some 83% of OWF learners attend schools rated by Ofsted as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, compared with 86% of AMI learners, 80% of pupil premium learners and 78% of FSM learners. For schools rated ‘good’ all four groups are within a single percentage point of each other. The proportion of OWF learners attending schools rated ‘outstanding’ is midway between the disadvantaged groups and the AMI group.
  • When school quality is measured by attainment deciles, a clearer distinction emerges between the incidence of disadvantaged and AMI learners, with the former progressively more under-represented and the latter progressively more over-represented as school attainment increases. However, the document is uncertain whether this effect is entirely explained by the tendency for disadvantaged learners to be lower attaining. By comparison, the proportion of OWF learners is almost completely stable with the sole exception of the lowest decile of schools, where they are somewhat under-represented.
  • Chart 1, below, synthesises data from different graphs in the consultation document. It highlights the severe under-representation of disadvantaged learners at selective schools and the extreme over-representation of learners from AMI families. It also demonstrates that OWF learners are equally well-represented in selective and non-selective schools, regardless of whether the latter are in highly selective areas.


Chart 1: Proportion of disadvantaged (FSM or pupil premium non-FSM), below median income (OWF) and above median income (AMI) learners attending selective and non-selective schools, AY 2015/16


  • There is no correlation between areas with high proportions of OWF learners and HE participation rates.
  • Attainment gaps on various performance measures are summarised in Chart 2 below, which also synthesises data in the technical consultation document. It shows that – with the possible exception of the gap between pupil premium and OWF learners at the KS2 expected standard in reading, writing and maths – gaps between disadvantaged and OWF learners are far more substantial than those between OWF and AMI learners. A similar relationship exists with KS4 progress scores. For some reason KS2 progress scores are not provided. 


Chart 2: Percentage points gaps on various performance measures between: disadvantaged (FSM) and below median income (OWF) learners; disadvantaged (non-FSM) and OWF learners; and OWF and above median income (AMI) learners – AY 2015/16


Greening discusses the technical consultation

Secretary of State Greening did not alight specifically on OWF learners until ‘Education at the heart of our plan for Britain’ (April 2017), which coincided with publication of the technical consultation document.

Initially this speech pursues her ideal of universal social mobility, but she now concedes that, to date, no other country has achieved this (arguably impossible) outcome:

‘Now, I think back to those countries that I spent so much time visiting over recent years, the people I met and the talents I saw unlocked by education. And I think – no single country had it right actually. There isn’t a country out there that has found the formula to unlock every talent of every person. But if a country could do that – if it really could build an education system to realise the potential of every one of its people, if it had an economy and businesses that could fully harness that potential – then what a country it would be. It would be unbeatable. That’s what this government wants for our country – and in doing so it will be a country that reflects the values of British people. And, I hope, a beacon to the rest of the world.’

The second half of the speech finally homes in on OWF learners:

‘But we believe it’s not just disadvantaged children and young people that our education system can deliver much more for. This government will not lose sight of other children, from ordinary working families. This government believes we have not done enough to support them – partly because they do not qualify under our existing measures of disadvantage. The danger is that they’ve ended up off the radar. But we are determined to also have them at the heart of our thinking. And at the heart of our plan for Britain.

The Prime Minister has been clear – if we are to build a country that works for everyone, we need to do more for young people from these families.’

Greening mentions that OWFs tend to live outside the inner cities, in suburbs, northern and coastal towns. She makes no explicit connection between OWFs and her mechanism for tackling geographical social mobility ‘coldspots’ through Opportunity Areas.

This section of the speech uses statistics in a rather loose and approximate manner, most likely because so much of the data in the consultation document does not bear out the Government’s position.

It argues that, if OWFs performed as well as ‘their wealthier peers’, ‘thousands more’ pupils would reach expected standards at KS2 and ‘thousands more’ would achieve the KS4 and KS5 grades necessary ‘to do well in later life’.

It is not clear exactly who the ‘wealthier peers’ are in this context, or how many ‘thousands more’ would benefit.

OWFs are ‘being let down by a shortage of good schools’ and if the schools they attended were as good as those attended by these unspecified ‘wealthier peers’, there would be ‘nearly 100,000 more outstanding school places for them’.

It is not possible to verify this statement with reference to the data in the consultation document.

In relation to selection Greening says:

‘But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that many young people from an ordinary working-class background already attend our existing grammar schools. In fact, as our technical consultation shows, it’s already the same proportion of them that attend non-selective schools. It reinforces that ordinary working families do value this choice of education for their children. Grammars do work for other groups in our society, not just the wealthy. And so, the new schools that we will create will support young people from every background, not the privileged few. Young people on free schools meals – those eligible for pupil premium. Young people from ordinary working families that are struggling to get by. I want these new schools to work for everyone. This will be a new model of grammars, truly open to all – we will insist on that.’

The technical consultation is to help the government ‘systematically understand’ OWF learners:

‘To be clear, this isn’t about creating brand-new labels for our families and our children. It isn’t about singling out some for support – whilst leaving others alone… But we do want to start to provide a clearer analysis of the situation. Of how these children of ordinary working people are faring in our education system. And for measuring how our wider reforms can do better for these families – and so better for the country.’



These arguments are riven by contradictions.

We are led to believe that:

  • The Government’s educational strategy will help all learners to succeed. It believes that ‘everyone has a talent’ and it is committed to building an educational system that realises every learner’s potential, unlocking everyone’s talent and then capitalising on it (even though no other country has so far succeeded in this almost certainly impossible endeavour).
  • But part of the Government’s strategy is to introduce new grammar schools, even though by definition they will be accessible to only a minority of learners, so undermining the pursuit of universal benefits. There is no explanation of how equivalent opportunities will be provided to unlock the potential of those not attending selective schools.
  • The Government believes that too little has been done to support OWF learners, so they will be placed ‘at the heart of our thinking’. It will now ‘do more’ for them, while also continuing to support learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. But at the same time ‘this isn’t about singling out some for support’ – the true priority is analysis to establish ‘how our wider reforms can do better for these children’. There is clearly some embarrassment about the prospect of prioritising them above disadvantaged learners.
  • Very similar proportions of OWFs attend the existing grammar schools as attend non-selective schools. The current model of selection is clearly working for OWF learners. There is no problem to fix, whereas there is a huge imbalance between advantaged and properly disadvantaged learners. Nevertheless new grammar schools will follow a ‘new model’ that will support OWF learners alongside those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The hierarchy implies a complex sequence of admission quotas – for FSM, pupil premium and OWF learners respectively – but this is unlikely to be workable in practice.

Much of the difficulty can be traced back to the fact that the technical consultation document makes such a poor case for additional support for OWF learners, so badly undermining the Prime Minister’s commitment to providing such support.

Moreover, Greening admits the Government is pursuing a vision that no other country has achieved. She does not bother to explain how her own three priorities for enhancing social mobility through education will specifically support OWF learners.

This lukewarm response is not the positioning one would expect from a minister expecting to survive a post-election reshuffle in June 2017.


The 2017 Conservative Manifesto

As expected, the Manifesto gives great prominence to OWFs, not least in Chapter 3, called ‘The world’s great meritocracy’.

This explains:

‘ We want to make Britain the world’s Great Meritocracy: a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow, where advantage is based on merit not privilege. To succeed, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, can have a world-class education.’

This rather conflicts with the parallel notion of prioritising OWFs. The Manifesto says explicitly: ‘We will govern in the interests of ordinary working families’. Few would cavil with this were the needs of OWFs to be elevated only above those from more privileged backgrounds, but that is not what is intended.

OWF learners are mentioned explicitly in relation to selection:

‘We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as eleven. Contrary to what some people allege, official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to nonselective schools.’

So they do, as the technical consultation document demonstrates, but it is not quite clear why this is justification for allowing the number of selective schools to increase, given the raft of evidence against, not least the huge disparity between the representation of AMI learners on one hand and pupil premium/FSM learners on the other.

OWF learners are also used to justify a wider review of school admissions, extending beyond the issues directly asociated with selection:

‘…  they cannot overcome the unfairness of selection by house price, where ordinary, working class families find it difficult to access the best schools because they cannot afford to live in the catchment area. We will therefore conduct a review of school admissions policy.’

But it is again clear from the consultation document that under-representation within the best schools is a much more pressing problem in relation to properly disadvantaged learners.


Third party analysis: Selection

Sutton Trust

A fortnight after publication of the Green Paper, a think tank called the Resolution Foundation published ‘Hanging on: The stresses and strains of Britain’s ‘just managing’ families’.

It defines the ‘just about managing’ as low to middle income households:

‘…comprising those in the bottom half of the income … distribution who are above the bottom ten per cent and who receive less than one-fifth of their income from means-tested benefits (but not including tax credit income).’

‘This covers around six million working households and ten million adults. Despite five-in-six of these families having at least one member in full time work, nearly four-fifths of these individuals earn less than £21,000 (the median gross wage).’

The publication converts this to ‘net equivalised household income’, describing this population as having net incomes between £12,000 and £34,000.

Yet it also notes:

‘Two-fifths are at a stage of life that brings with it significant cost pressures – having children. Indeed, children are twice as likely to live in low to middle income families as in higher income working households. The extent to which the additional cost pressures associated with children can bite is reflected in the fact that a minority of workers in low to middle income households have salaries as high as £50,000 – yet still find life a struggle.’

The average disposable income amongst those families which include children is given as £26,900, including an average £3,500 in tax credit income.

The author subsequently estimates that this population – together with the disadvantaged population – accounts for some 63% of all children and young people. This is almost identical to the figure provided in the Government’s technical consultation document.

A later Sutton Trust research brief ‘Gaps in grammar’ (December 2016) uses the Resolution Foundation estimate, in combination with IDACI data, to analyse under-representation in grammar schools:

‘Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that disadvantaged children are much less likely than other pupils to attend grammar schools. However, our new analysis shows that other students from families on below average incomes (those ‘Just About Managing’), are also significantly under-represented.’

The precise methodology is unclear, but seems to involve correlations between this portion of the family income distribution and those living within ‘areas falling in the lowest two IDACI quintiles’ (about 70% of such families satisfy both criteria).

The research brief includes two graphs showing the distribution of Year 7 learners – in grammar schools and non-selective schools respectively – by deprivation quintile (presumably IDACI, though the graphs are not labelled as such).

Each table shows the pattern for London schools and also a category called ‘isolated’ which is not properly explained.

The grammar school table (reproduced below) shows that, outside London, the proportion of Year 7 pupils attending grammar schools increases by IDACI quintile.



Since IDACI is an area-based measure of disadvantage – and the location of grammar schools will affect who attends them – it is not quite clear how this can be a reliable proxy for OWF learners (even though IDACI is used as the proxy in the national funding formula consultation).

What is clear is that the findings about selection in the technical consultation document directly contradict the Sutton Trust’s finding. The Trust’s response to Greening’s speech completely skates over this fact.


Education Datalab/Burgess et al

More recently an April 2017 blog post from Education Datalab draws parallels with the findings of Burgess et al, relating to the socio-economic distribution at grammar schools as measured by an SES Index, which combines FSM status with other measures including:

‘…the type of neighbourhood, levels of deprivation, and the occupational structure, along with levels of education and home ownership figures’.

This study assumes that OWF learners are those from families ‘in the range from the 20th to the 40th percentile of SES’ and estimates they ‘have only a 12% chance of attending a grammar school’ whereas the top decile on this Index ‘have a 50% chance of attending a grammar’.

There is a proviso:

‘Given the strong link between SES and achievement – even at age 11 – it may be the case that these SES gradients are simply reflecting higher achievement among pupils from more affluent families’

The Burgess study reveals more disturbing findings when the results are controlled for prior attainment.

But education datalab focuses on the non-controlled data, arguing that it reveals a similar story to that in the technical consultation document:

‘If you take the data from the Burgess chart and group their SES index into three bands, then 11%, 31% and 59% of pupils in grammar schools would be from the lowest, middle and highest SES index groups. By comparison, the DfE show 9%, 36% and 53% of pupils at grammar schools from the pupil premium, low-income working and higher-income working groups respectively (each group is about the same size…’

Strictly speaking this is comparing apples and pears since the two studies construct their groups on very different assumptions.

Datalab comments that the Government’s approach:

‘… seems to imply that low income families stand as good a chance of gaining access to a grammar school as they do a comprehensive. This is, of course, by construction impossible since comprehensives collectively offer education for 100% of pupils’.

This point is reiterated by the EPI:

‘The mathematics of selection mean that the majority of OWFs will not get into grammar schools even in highly selective areas.’

It is true enough, but does not detract from the fact that OWF learners are already relatively successful in passing the 11+ because they are equally as well-represented in selective schools as they are in non-selective schools: the real disparity is between disadvantaged and AMI learners.

The full working paper containing Burgess et al’s findings was published immediately after the Conservative manifesto, but it continues to use the 20th to 40th percentile of SES as a proxy for OWF, rather than applying the definition in the technical consultation document.

The key finding is reported thus:

‘We have shown that only among the very affluent do more than half of the pupils get into a grammar school; the grammar system has nothing to offer to most families. Even at the 75th percentile of the SES distribution, only a third of children in selective areas access grammars, whereas the chance is 80% for a family at the 99th percentile.’

Additionally, the study argues that:

‘…the system harms the university prospects of bright pupils who do not quite make it into grammar schools, relative to their peers in non-selective areas. For example, they are 8 percentage points less likely to attend a high-quality university, are less likely to achieve a good degree classification and are more likely to drop out. Furthermore, the selective system does not even produce clear gains in university outcomes for those who do attend grammars.’


Third party analysis: Overall


Education Datalab

In a parallel post, Education Datalab makes the wider point, consistent with this analysis, that the evidence does not support intervention to help OWF learners:

‘This government has posited the idea that the focus on Pupil Premium students ignored a large set of low income families who were also struggling to access high quality education for their children…But the charts…emphasise that we should not use household income to identify a group of lower earners who should also attract funding or preferential treatment in access to schools… those who have not claimed benefits during secondary school typically do not have children who are struggling educationally, even if they themselves are on very low incomes.’

However, it goes on to argue that this is consistent with other research showing that household income does not have a significant impact on learners’ attainment:

‘It is simply a relatively poor proxy for other important social factors that tell us how well a child is likely to do at school, including parental education.

So within each of these income groupings, there are children coming from materially different home environments that will significantly affect how successful they will be at school.

If we want to create useful indicators that tell us how much the state should intervene to support a child at risk of falling behind at school then we’ll have to do better than simply matching in tax records to the National Pupil Database.’

There is no suggestion as to how the Government might more accurately assess these home environments – and then associate the deserving sub-group with its broader policy of prioritising ‘ordinary working families’ defined by their limited household income.

All proxies have their limitations – and pupil premium eligibility is no exception – but it seems that the Government’s preferred ‘net equivalised household income’ proxy is more misleading than most.


Education Policy Institute

The EPI’s overall response to the technical consultation document is squarely in accord with this analysis:

  • ‘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 Government’s vision for social mobility is that:

  • It will benefit everyone, by ensuring that ‘everybody all over the country…can go as far as their talents mean they’re able to’. But it also acknowledges that no other country has ever achieved this feat. It seems extremely doubtful that we can do so, especially given present constraints on public expenditure and the raft of additional problems created by Brexit. It might also be argued that 100% upward social mobility is impossible to achieve because relative social mobility is a zero sum game – everyone moving up displaces someone who moves downwards.
  • This will be achieved through meritocracy, where progress depends on individual talent and effort. But, alongside this, opportunity must be extended to those for whom it is limited, so levelling the playing field and enabling all to compete fairly. Opportunity will continue to be extended to disadvantaged learners – those eligible for the pupil premium – but will now be spread further, encompassing learners from ordinary working families (OWF learners). This second group will take priority, even over disadvantaged learners.
  • The proportion of learners requiring additional opportunity – and therefore additional support – increases from approximately 1 in 4 (those eligible for pupil premium) to almost 2 in every 3 (those eligible for pupil premium plus OWF learners). Since the prioritisation of OWF learners was first announced, the size of this population has grown steadily, to the point where it now includes some 35% of all learners in state-funded schools. The disadvantaged will continue to receive pupil premium for the time being, with the existing budget maintained until the end of the next government (though eligibility could still change after 2019/20). The proposed national funding formula would however divert resources from disadvantaged to OWF learners.

The Government is apparently unclear exactly how it will prioritise the needs of OWF learners within its wider education policy. Education Secretary Greening has not properly explained how her own policy priorities will reflect these needs. There is more than a hint that DfE and No. 10 are not as one on this issue.

There is some case for more robust analysis of the finer gradations of educational disadvantage.

But, as a mechanism for targeting educational interventions and support, the separate identification of OWF learners is almost certainly a retrograde step because:

  • It unpicks a deliberate policy decision to concentrate on closing performance gaps between pupil premium learners and the rest of the population. In doing so, it risks diffusing the collective effort and diverting scarce resources from the most pressing priority. There is also a very real risk that a relatively deserving group will be given more attention than the most deserving and that is fundamentally inequitable.
  • It obfuscates the sizeable gaps between disadvantaged and OWF learners by drawing out distinctions between the performance of FSM and pupil premium learners. While it is important to understand the range of disadvantage evident within the pupil premium category – and the argument has been made elsewhere for retaining this distinction – it risks over-complicating and diluting the collective policy response.
  • This will also be perceived as a deliberate smokescreen, intended to obscure the limited and uneven progress made by successive administrations in closing pupil premium gaps since the premium was first introduced six years ago, early in the lifetime of the previous Coalition government. Although one might reasonably argue that it is too early to realise the full impact of pupil premium funding, it is equally true that progress to date is not commensurate with an investment of some £15bn (£2.5bn annually).
  • Efforts to distinguish a target group exclusively on the basis of income fly in the face of other research on the limited correlation between income and educational attainment.

The Government’s own evidence, published in the technical consultation document reveals very limited gaps between OWF and AMI learners, whether in terms of pupil attainment or access to better quality institutions.

There is no substantive issue with representation of OWF learners in the existing grammar schools.

But there are substantial and conspicuous gaps in the published data, not least the distribution of OWF learners in free schools and their comparative performance in grammar schools. We know nothing of how well OWF learners are represented amongst the highest attainers.

Ahead of the Election the previous Government committed its successor administration to greater transparency:

‘The open consultation on Analysing family circumstances and education provided a range of supporting analysis. Supplementary tables with additional analysis will be published by the department as part of the consultation response.’

But, as things stand, the real onus on the next Government is to prove that there is a substantive issue here, rather than something manufactured to fit the Prime Minister’s wider political agenda.

It would be well advised to proceed with extreme caution since there is every chance that – even for a brand new government – a deliberate strategy of prioritising OWF learners over disadvantaged learners and redistributing resources from the latter to the former will seriously backfire.



May 2017

One thought on “The ‘ordinary working families’ fallacy

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