MORE than 35,000 pupils in the North East of England who live below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals under current legislation.
A new report, The Cost of Missing Lunchtime – a Briefing on Free School Meals in the North East of England by Children North East, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC) reveals one in four children from poorer families in the region are not entitled to a free, nutritious daily meal at school.
The data also highlights another 4,000 North East pupils, living in families with no recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status, may also miss out if the temporary extension of school meals to these households is not made permanent.
Luke Bramhall, Poverty Proofing and Participation Service Manager for Children North East, said:
“It is clearly not right that many thousands of primary and secondary pupils in our region are being deprived of vital nutrition.
“We believe the current eligibility threshold for free school meals is too low so we are calling on the Government to restore the previous eligibility threshold, which included all families on Universal Credit. This should be extended to all those on equivalent benefits.
“Furthermore, we want to see the temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to be made permanent for those households with no recourse to public funds.”
In 2013 the Government introduced a temporary measure, making all families in receipt of Universal Credit eligible for free school meals. This was designed to protect families from losing out on entitlements during the initial stages of the roll-out.
Falling through the net
However since 1 April 2018 families have had to have an income less than £7,400 to be eligible.
Children North East, CPAG and the NECPC say this has led to many pupils who are living in poverty falling through the Free School Meals net.
Poorer children are not only missing out on nutrition, says the report, they are also being deprived of extra help in the classroom as free school meals take-up is directly linked to Pupil Premium funding.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of CPAG explained:
“We know that free school meals help struggling families to stay afloat, as well as improve the health and educational outcomes of their children. But many across the North East are missing out, exposing children to hardship. Government must step up urgently and expand eligibility for free school meals to make sure no kid goes hungry.”
“Schools and local authorities can also play an important role by making sure families who are already eligible take up free school meals: this has benefits for eligible children but also increases school funding which helps all pupils.”
The three organisations, Children North East, Child Poverty Action Group and the North East Child Poverty Commission, have calculated it would cost £38.1m to expand free school meals to all households in the North East in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits, on top of the current status quo.
Amanda Bailey, Director of the NECPC, said this is cost effective:
“Research shows that free school meals have a number of proven benefits and are an effective anti-child poverty measure. They can help boost children’s learning and attainment as well as supporting their health through providing a balanced meal each day.”
“Children also benefit from the social experience of sitting down together, eating the same food and sharing the dining hall experience. For families, free school meal entitlement can relieve pressures on household budgets and free up money for other living costs.
“Expanding free school meals to more children can also help to tackle inequalities by decreasing the number of children in low income families who miss out, and it can reduce stigma associated with the entitlement.”
Other recommendations in the report, which is being sent to North East MPs, local authorities and schools, include:
- Local authorities should review their free school meal policies, processes and practices to ensure they are maximising the number of families taking up their free school meal entitlement. Data suggests the current take-up rate of free school meals in the North East is 89 per cent (116,000 eligible pupils with only 103,000 claiming).
- Local authorities should make information about free school meals easily accessible, and directly linked to Covid-response pages/other financial inclusion information on their websites.
- Schools should identify and address any existing policies or practices that either prevent pupils taking up their free school meal entitlement or further disadvantage them.
- Local authorities and schools should offer child poverty training to school staff to help increase awareness of the issue and help schools identify practical ways they can increase support to families who might be struggling.