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Factors associated with academic achievement

Author: Alex Sutherland
Institution: RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge
Type of case study: Research

About the research

Every year, the UK government allocates additional funding to publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils via the Pupil Premium. The Pupil Premium is allocated to schools for each child registered as eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years.

Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility is used as measure of socio-economic status (SES) is linked to lower pupil achievement. The additional Pupil Premium funding aims to help state schools to narrow the achievement gap between students who receive free school meals and those who do not. However, FSM eligibility may not be the most comprehensive measure of pupil deprivation, so a question is whether this can be improved on.

The Department for Education (DfE) commissioned RAND Europe and the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge to assess the quality of the current measure of socioeconomic deprivation used by DfE. Specifically, the work aimed to assess the relationship between FSM eligibility, pupil achievement at the end of Key Stage 2 (age 11) and Key Stage 4 (age 16, when most children take GCSEs), and measures that may act as measures of socioeconomic status (SES). The project aimed to answer the following questions:

  • Can FSM histories be improved on as a measure of social deprivation?
  • What alternative measures of SES can be used that better capture variation in achievement?
  • Do alternative measures better enable us to identify pupils at risk of low achievement?


The research uses multi-level models to assess the relationship between the factors used as predictors of achievement. A first set of models, to include pupil demographic characteristics and rich socioeconomic controls derived for children (such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation), for parents, for the neighbourhood in which the pupils live and for the school they attend. A second set of models, to include the same pupil demographic characteristics and a series of varied proxies for socioeconomic status. The aim was to compare the predictive power of the rich controls in the first set of models with those of the proxies in the second one and to compare the features of the individuals being identified as disadvantaged by the two models.

The Key Stage 4 analyses relate to attainment in 2006 and combined a range of survey and administrative data on more than 15,000 young people taken from the first Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (wave 1), matched with data from the National Pupil Database for the period 2002-2006.

The Key Stage 2 analyses relate to attainment in 2012 and combined data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a prospective longitudinal study of 19,000 UK children born in 2000/1, data from the 2001 UK Census and linked administrative data from central government.

Findings for policy

The findings at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 had a high degree of consistency and showed that Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility remained the best measure of SES in terms of explaining achievement at Key Stage 2 and 4. Although parental education, parental occupations and household income were individually slightly ‘better’ predictors of achievement, the gain was marginal versus the potential costs of moving to a new system.

The results also indicated substantial socioeconomic gaps in attainment between FSM and non-FSM eligible children. However, these gaps may have been even larger if there had not already been a long-running redistributive and compensatory system aimed at alleviating disadvantage in place. The findings therefore suggest it is crucial to identify disadvantaged pupils at risk of underachievement as early as possible in order to support them with additional resources.

The findings of the study were used to inform the Government consultation seeking views on proposals to introduce a Schools national funding formula and a Research Report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, Primary Schools Responding to Diversity: Barriers and Possibilities.


The findings of the project are available in a series of public reports on GOV.UK:

Sutherland, A., Ilie, S., Vignoles, A. (2015) ‘Factors associated with achievement: key stage 2’, Research Report for the DfE. Available at

Sutherland, A., Ilie, S., Vignoles, A. (2015) ‘Factors associated with achievement: key stage 4’, Research Report for the DfE. Available at