In their 2016 Assembly Election Manifesto, Sinn Fein highlighted the success of the Education Minister, John O’Dowd, by claiming that the rate of children that obtain 5 GCSEs A*-C has risen from 31.5% to 58.5% among Free School Meals (FSM) recipients. This would be particularly significant as a marker of improvement in performance among disadvantaged students, who have consistently scored at a lower level than those not eligible for FSM.
FSM in Northern Ireland
FSM are available for students who are deemed at risk or disadvantaged according to particular criteria. Over 100,000 students in Northern Ireland are eligible for the program, which constitutes 3 in 10 students. FSM are provided in schools across the United Kingdom, with the practice dating back in some schools to 1906. Between 2008-2015, there was a consistent rise in eligibility, while the proportion remained the same in the past year. Approximately 80% of students who are eligible for FSM in Northern Ireland actually collect them, with 20% still providing for their own lunch.
It is important to note that while the claim specifies that the increase in performance has been among those receiving FSM, the statistics actually include all students who are eligible.
Improving GCSE results among Free School Meal Eligible (FSME) students
FSM eligibility has been used as a standard for distinguishing between the performance among students who are disadvantaged and consequently often struggle to achieve marks on par with other students. The statistic being cited by Sinn Fein in their manifesto refers to a Statistical Press Release from the Department of Education on the qualifications achieved by school leavers in 2012/13. This report demonstrates that among FSME students, 58.5% achieved 5 GCSE’s A*-C, while the rate among non-FSME students stood at 83.1%. Corresponding figures are only available dating back to 2003/04, though DENI has informed us that the rate of 31.5% (per Sinn Fein manifesto claim) was last recorded in the 2001/02 academic year.
DENI has also released statistical bulletins on exam results in 2013/14 and 2014/15. The most recent figures show further improvements, with a rate of 64.6% receiving 5 GCSE’s A*-C two years ago, and 70% doing so last year. This means that over the past 13 years, the rate of FSME students receiving 5 GCSE’s A*-C has more than doubled. However, despite all the progress, this remains below the overall percentage of all students who achieve these marks, which stands at 82.8%.
Nevertheless, statistics dating back to the 2005/06 academic year show that FSME students have improved their performance at a faster rate than other students. Apart from multiple periods of suspended devolution, most notably between 2002 and 2007, Sinn Fein has held the ministry of education throughout the entire period of the 2001/02 academic year until present.