Alex Dalton and Tom Albone are part of the LIDA Data Scientist Internship Programme and are working closely with CDRC Health and Wellbeing theme lead Dr Michelle Morris. The shared focus of their intern projects is inequalities in the local Bradford area, and one of the pressing local issues affecting this local community (as well as families nationally) is free school meals.
Following on from their previous blog ‘Free School Meals: A National Necessity’, in which they demonstrated the regional inequalities within England concerning eligibility and uptake of free school meals, with the data indicating that the Northern regions have the greatest eligibility for the service. This article considers the issue locally, focussing on the Bradford district.
Free School Meals through a local lens – Bradford
For many, January 2021 has not started as we had hoped. Although there is widespread positivity brought by the Coronavirus vaccination roll-out, at the time of writing, a third lockdown once again means that homes have to simultaneously encompass the office and the classroom as schools are closed to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The Government has agreed to extend free school meals during this third lockdown. In this second blog article we have taken the opportunity to reflect on the free school meals issue, in a more local context.
Food insecurity and child poverty are worse in economically deprived areas. Bradford (see Figure 1) is the 6th largest city in the UK, yet it routinely reports high levels of deprivation. It is ranked the 13th most deprived local authority in England (out of 317) and the 2nd in Yorkshire and the Humber region. Between 2015 and 2019 Bradford moved up six places from 19th to 13th in the overall list, indicating its worsening situation.¹
The recent Born in Bradford Better Start (BiBBS) Covid-19 Survey across families in Bradford found that 18% of children said they do ‘worry about how hard it is for parents to get enough food for us’ – a shocking statistic.
Figure 1. Plot showing the percentage of students eligible for free school meals per school on census day in the 2019/20 Academic Year. Plots are by Local Authority, indicating the quartiles with bw=0.1 and a uniform scale across the plots. Percentages are calculated per school using data collected by the ONS across all schools in the UK (excluding independent schools). The plot of students eligible on census day is overlayed with the plot of students recorded actually taking free school meals on the census day (translucent violin plots).
Within Yorkshire and the Humber, a breakdown of students’ eligibility by Local Authority allows a comparative understanding of the Bradford area. Our analysis uses government data across all schools, excluding independent schools, for the 2019/20 Academic Year, see Figure 1.
Comparing the shapes of the violin plots, it is clear that the number of students eligible per school ranges drastically between local authorities, as it does nationwide. The shorter plots (such as North Yorkshire) indicate that the schools in that area all have a similarly low eligibility. In contrast, taller plots (such as Sheffield) indicate that there is a high number of schools in the area with a high percentage of eligible students.
Bradford schools reported a similar mean eligibility across its schools (20.5%) to the statistics for the Yorkshire and the Humber Region (19.5%). The importance of free school meals in the area jumps out when looking at quartiles: a widely-used statistical measure marking out points in the distributions shown on the plots by dashed lines.
Looking at the distance between the lower and upper dashed lines for each Local Authority, Bradford can be seen to have a large range of eligibility in its schools. Each dashed line (quartile) progressively marks a quarter of the data, when ranked from lowest to highest. Thus, the large distance between these outermost dashed lines shows values range greatly across most schools in the area.
Bradford schools reported a similar upper quartile (27.4%) to the statistic for the Region (27.4%). However, the middle (19.8%) and lower quartiles (11.7%) for the area are both higher than the Regional averages (16.5%) and (8.5%). These higher measures imply the majority of schools in Bradford have a higher likelihood of children needing free school meals than the majority of schools in the Region.
Regional variations exist. What about neighbourhood variation?
In this map of Bradford (figure 2), local variation in eligibility and uptake is clear. The more populated southeast of Bradford has several wards where the percentage of children both eligible and, of those eligible, taking free school meals on census day is relatively high.
Figure 2 – Bivariate map showing percentage of children eligible for free school meals and of those, who took one on census day. School data has been aggregated to ward level.
The school data has been aggregated into wards and gives some indications as to which areas of Bradford contain schools attended by children for whom food security is a concern. The results are not unexpected given that 14 out of 30 Bradford wards are amongst the 10% most deprived in England (shown in bold in Figure 4). The two variables have a strong positive correlation, for example where there are high percentages of children eligible, a higher percentage of those children took a free school meal on census day. It is important to note that the data used here reflects what happened on census day, considered a ‘normal’ school day.
At a more granular level, the same spatial patterns can be seen across Bradford with graduated symbols. In Figure 3, larger icons represent schools with a higher percentage of pupils that are known to be eligible for free school meals. The areal units underneath the schools are Lower Super Outputs Areas (LSOA) showing relative deprivation across England by decile. There is a clear relationship between more deprived areas and higher levels of free school meal eligibility. 34% of Bradford’s LSOAs fall within 10% of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England, whilst 16% fall within the least deprived, showing a stark contrast and potential for inequalities experienced by residents across the district.
Figure 3 – Map showing schools in Bradford classified by percentage of children who were eligible for free school meals and made a claim on census day. Schools appear over the top of the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019.
Figure 4 – Map showing schools in Bradford classified by percentage of eligible children who took a free school meal on census day. Schools appear over the top of the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019.
Higher levels of eligibility are frequently used to allocate additional funding and interventions for children and can often be a proxy for deprivation (as eligibility is tied to income). However, as with many demographic and socioeconomic measures, the underlying picture is most likely far more complex. Less than half of the children eligible (and who have already been claimed for) took advantage of free school meals, indicted by the maximum percentage of 43% (Figure 6). The same spatial patterns occur when compared to eligibility in Figure 3, however the interpretation of such patterns is different. For example, schools in more affluent areas have a lower percentage of eligible pupils having a free school meal. There could be many reasons for this other than underlying demographics, such as an urban/rural split or size of school.
Research has found that stigma plays a large role in impacting whether children who are eligible use the service or not.² Anonymity is considered one of the best solutions to this problem, with the traditional method of providing vouchers that are handed to catering staff being identified as one reason children are so reluctant to take a free school meal.³
We cannot conduct analysis or reach any conclusions on stigma based on our data, however we can see that in less deprived areas, there was a lower percentage of eligible children taking free school meals on a ‘normal’ school day. Whether this was because stigma is felt more keenly where a child may be one of a much smaller number eligible is unclear, but it is certainly worth considering. It is important to note that eligibility measures only consider those who have made a claim for the service.
What can we learn looking forwards?
Worsening food security is another of the unfortunate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue of whether to extend free school meals into the holidays has taken centre stage in the national conversation on several occasions. There are areas of high relative deprivation where free school meals are a necessity for a large percentage of an individual school’s population. Although the Government has changed its policy in response to sustained campaigns, using data to understand the local and national landscape with respect to free school meals will help inform more proactive and timely decision making.
Bradford is just one instance of a highly disadvantaged region in the UK, where food access is one of the many issues for struggling residents. The most deprived areas in Bradford contain schools with higher percentages of pupils both eligible for and taking free school meals. This indicates the need for continued support in these communities, in order to minimise food insecurity. These areas will be significantly more disadvantaged and face serious financial pressures over winter, particularly over this uncertain period.
If we can promote change in this area, it would then positively impact many outcomes in children’s lives later down the line. Systems must be put in place to combat food insecurity imminently. It is important for local authorities, such as Bradford, to have adequate resources to continue to provide free school meals to pupils when schools are closed due to COVID-19. In 2021, the Government’s extension of free school meals over the school holidays and closures needs to be the first reality of a resolution to get our children the necessities they deserve.
³ Holford, Angus. (2015). Take-up of Free School Meals: Price Effects and Peer Effects. Economica. 82. 10.1111/ecca.1214