A coalition of organisations committed to tackling the effects of poverty and inequality on children and young people is urging the government to ensure a new National Food Strategy ‘levels up’ free school meals for thousands of pupils across the North East.
The North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC), Children North East and Schools North East have joined forces with national charity Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to warn Ministers that – despite pledges to level up all parts of the country – the current free school meals system is leaving children in England “well behind” their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
Writing to the Secretaries of State for Education and for the Environment, the four organisations have called on the government to seize the opportunity of a forthcoming Food Strategy White Paper to “put the inadequacies of the free school meals system in England right”.
Today’s joint letter – copied to all North East MPs – highlights the findings of The Cost of Missing Lunchtime: a briefing on free school meals in the North East, which was published last year by NECPC, Children North East and CPAG.
This analysis estimated that:
- Over 35,000 – 1 in 4 – school-aged pupils living in poverty in the North East are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) under the current narrow threshold.
- Around 4,000 non-infant schoolchildren in the North East are in families with no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, many of whom will be living well below the poverty line but are not usually eligible for means-tested FSM.
- 11% of pupils who are eligible for FSM in the North East do not claim this support, often due to the complexity of the process and/or families being unaware of their entitlement. This is resulting in North East schools losing out on £15million in pupil premium funding each year.
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. However, since 1st April 2018 families have had to have an income of less than £7,400 before benefits to be eligible.
Amanda Bailey, NECPC Director, explained:
“Whilst our region has the highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, our research makes clear that there are still many thousands of North East children and young people living in poverty who do not qualify for this vital support because the current threshold is simply far too low.
“It’s not right that they are missing out on support to receive a hot, balanced meal each day with all the many proven benefits of this.”
The four organisations are therefore urging the government to ensure that the new National Food Strategy, expected in the spring:
- Restores the previous free school meal (FSM) eligibility which included all families in receipt of Universal Credit, and extends it to those equivalent legacy benefits – as the most effective way of ensuring all children and young people experiencing poverty and food insecurity receive this support.
- Makes permanent the current temporary extension of FSM eligibility to some households with no recourse to public funds – many of whom will be living in deep, long-term poverty.
- Introduces automatic registration for FSM – with the Government using the data it already has to identify and automatically enrol families entitled to receive this support, instead of schools and local authorities using valuable time and resources to do so.
Leigh Elliott, Chief Executive at Children North East, said
“At a time when child poverty is rising alongside soaring living costs – and growing numbers of families are struggling to make ends meet – expanding the reach of free school meals would make a massive difference to tens of thousands of pupils in the North East, and many more across the rest of England.
“This would be a really tangible and effective way of supporting low-income families – the majority of whom are in work – whilst benefiting their children’s health and education.”
Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East, added:
“As well as extending the reach of free school meals, the government must make better use of the data it has to automatically enrol all pupils eligible for this support.
“At the moment, schools across our region are missing out on millions of pounds of vital pupil premium funding, despite the huge efforts they – and local councils – make to register eligible pupils. A bit of joined-up thinking across government would avoid this unnecessary use of valuable resources and reap huge benefits for schools and families across the North East.”
And Sara Ogilvie, CPAG’s Director of policy, rights and advocacy, also said:
“The government has committed to level up all parts of the country, but the reality is that children and families in England are being left well behind their counterparts in the rest of the UK with universal free school meals being rolled out in primary schools in Wales and Scotland and a free school meals review underway in Northern Ireland.
“The current free school meals system in England is clearly inadequate, but the new National Food Strategy provides the government with a really important opportunity to put this right. They must seize it.”