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Why those on free school meals earn less than their peers – FE News


Students from poor families tend to earn less than others when they become adults, and the difference is stark. What are the factors behind the income gap?

People who grew up in low-income households in England have lower average earnings at age 30 than their peers, even when education and high school levels are matched.

Analysis of long-term administrative data shows a persistent gap in earnings between those who received free school meals as children and other pupils.

In part, this overall gap in lower earnings is due to the fact that people from low-income families are much less likely to receive a college degree. The size of this overall earnings gap widens between the ages of 18 and 30, particularly around the time of university graduation.

But even among those with the same level of qualifications and attainment in high school, disadvantaged students earned less than their peers.

In this article, we explore explanations for the gap: education, work experience, ethnicity, gender, and other possible factors.

The wage gap between those who receive free school meals and those who do not in public schools can be largely explained by these characteristics.

However, pupils who attended independent private schools (which do not qualify for free school meals) generally earned more than other pupils with similar qualifications and Key Stage 4 (KS4) by the age of 30.

A free school meals pupil with similar characteristics will still earn on average around 20% less than an independent school pupil.

Half of free school meal pupils aged 30 earned £17,000 or less

There is wide variation in pay among the highest earners, but earnings at age 30 for disadvantaged students tend to be much lower.

Free school meals are organized for students of public schools living in a household with an income of £7,500 a year or less.

Long-term administrative data tracks the outcomes of these pupils, along with others who attended public schools but did not receive free school meals and pupils in independent schools (privately funded schools). Pupils in independent schools are not entitled to free school meals and there is no data on the family income of these pupils. We analyzed people aged 30 between April 2016 and April 2019.

In all three of these groups, there is a wide wage gap between the highest and lowest paid. This means that there is not only a difference in earnings between students of different backgrounds, but also a difference between employed people within the same group.

Among pupils at independent schools, the top 10% earned £71,000 or more and the top 1% earned more than £180,000.

By contrast, state school students who do not receive free school meals must earn more than £85,000 a year to be in the top 1%. Their salaries were at least double the salaries of 90% of people in this group.

The top 1% of free school meal pupils earned around £63,000. In contrast, 50% of people on free school meals earned £17,000 or less at age 30.

Sector response

Ben Gadsby, head of policy and research at youth charity Impetus, said:

“The gap in the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their better-off peers is still too wide. These young people are most likely to be not in education, training or employment (NEET) early in their careers and therefore miss out on vital early career growth. We believe that all young people should have the choice of quality education, training or employment to close this gap and enable all young people, regardless of their background, to succeed in life.’

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