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Social Justice

Free school meals pupils earn less than their peers – and the gap only widens as they get older

The earning gap widens over time, with half of free school meals pupils earning less than £17,000 per year aged 30.

Children who were eligible for free school meals earn less than their peers, and the gap grows as they get older, new data shows.

The Office for National Statistics has revealed half of free school meals pupils earn less than £17,000 a year by the time they reach 30 years old.

Free school meals recipients earn less than their peers at all ages, but the gap widens with age. When people turn 18, there are only small differences. But from 22, the age people tend to graduate from university, the earning gap grows. 

Only 16.2 per cent of free school meals pupils received an undergraduate degree between 2002 and 2019. That’s in comparison to nearly a third (28.2 per cent) of state school students who weren’t eligible for free school meals, and well over half (57.3 per cent) of independent school pupils. 

The likelihood of free school meals students doing a masters degree is just 3.3 per cent, while one in five private school students (20.6 per cent) went on to study for a masters. 

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A spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group tweeted: “Children who grow up in low-income households have to play catch-up with their peers from an early age. The long and short-term effects of poverty are stark – children leave school earlier, earn less and struggle to progress in work.

“All kids deserve a fair start in life, and the best way for the government to deliver that is to invest in social security for families. But at the moment we’re falling well short of giving the nation’s children the opportunity that everyone deserves.”

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, men are £130,000 better off over the course of their working lives by going to university. This is after taxes, student loan repayments and foregone earnings are taken into account. For women, the figure is £100,000.

Regardless, there is also an earnings gap among individuals with the same level of educational qualifications. Those eligible for free school meals were earning less at 30 than their peers who had the exact same level of education.

An independent school student whose GCSE results were in the bottom 20 per cent nationally earned an average of around £22,000 aged 30. An individual who was from a low-income background and on free school meals would typically have to be in the top 40 per cent nationally at GCSE level to earn £22,000 by the age of 30. 

The most important factors for lower earnings among free school meals students are an individual’s education level and their work experience, accounting for 95 per cent of the gap between free school meals pupils and non-free school meals pupils.

If a person who was eligible for free school meals had the same GCSE results, level of education, years of work experience, ethnicity and went to a school in the same region as a private school student, they would still earn an average of around 20 per cent less than their independent school counterpart. The ONS describes this as an “unexplained gap in earnings”.

Teach First said: “The evidence is clear: young people from poorer backgrounds end up earning less than their peers. This can’t continue. We need to ensure that every child, no matter their background, leaves school with the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in the world of work.”

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