Education and Social Mobility: Understanding earnings outcomes for free school meals students – initial findings


This is the first in a series examining earning outcomes at age 25, relative to the living wage, for people who had free school meals (FSM) and those who did not.

Being in receipt of FSM is commonly used as a proxy measure for socio-economic disadvantage (including household income deprivation) during childhood. So looking at the relative earnings of young people in relation to having been in receipt or not of FSM is a useful way of exploring social mobility in early adulthood.

“What our experimental analysis shows is that inequalities continue into early adult working lives for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds” says Neil Smith from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). “We also see gender differences apparent at this early stage. Both these inequalities are seen across all parts of the country.”

Key findings

  • Fewer than a quarter (23%) of young people who were free school meal (FSM) recipients when attending school in England were earning above the living wage by the age of 25. This compares with 43.5% of those who did not receive FSM.
  • Female recipients of FSM were less likely than male FSM recipients to earn above the living wage at the age of 25: 18.2% compared with 27.8%. A similar imbalance was seen among non-FSM recipients: 39.9% of young women, compared with 47.5% of young men.
  • Across the country, the East of England had the greatest proportion of FSM recipients earning above the living wage, and the North East had the fewest: 29.5% compared with 19.9%.
  • Across England, all regions saw a broadly similar difference between FSM recipients and non-recipients earning above the living wage, at around 20%. Similarly, the differences between women and men were consistent across regions, with a higher proportion of men in both groups earning above the living wage than the women in each group.
  • As earnings increase above the living wage, the proportion of FSM recipients decreases at a faster rate than for non-recipients.