I remember my days as a pupil at St. Aidan’s School, where pupils collected a lime green token at morning registration for their free school meal. The embarrassment and inevitable mocking had to be endured again a couple of hours later as the token was exchanged publicly with the cashier in the lunch hall… Gladly, for most schools, the pupil shaming has gone. However, free school meals (FSM) has been a key feature of educational news and debate in recent months. Whilst political parties on both sides of the house continue to argue over nuances in data sets and extrapolation models, the real losers are the children.
The debate has risen due to welfare reforms and if the reforms go ahead whether parents can or cannot claim FSM for their children. Currently, all school children aged 4-7 are entitled to a universal free school meal, but children aged 7+ are only eligible for free school meals dependent on family income. Both the Education Secretary and the Work and Pensions Secretary both claimed in the House of Commons that no child will miss out on a free school meal due to welfare reforms. Whilst opposition parties claim that children will miss out on FSM if reforms go through as planned. Once again we have seen our children used as a political football to score political points.1As FSM are dependent on family income it is important to consider children from low-income families. Whilst the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data acknowledge child poverty between 2010 and 2017 increased from 27% to 30% respectfully. Worryingly the group of children most affected by poverty are those with two or more siblings. Again, DWP data illustrates that child poverty has risen from 32% in 2012 to 42% in 2017, for this subset of data. Contradicting this trend are children who live in a two working parent household, where child poverty remains constant. As in most data sets covering a large demographic, it is easy to find a narrative to suit any ideological theme.
Independent analysis of the reforms by @TheIFS indicates that currently there are both winners and losers under the reforms. With 210,000 children gaining a FSM under the new proposals and 160,000 children losing their FSM entitlement. Therefore, a net gain of 50,000 more children able to access FSM. With the political party to the right claiming a victory by increasing entitlement by 50,000, the political party on the left are also claiming a victory by suggesting their data was right and that 160,000 children will lose. The most worrying statistic from the independent analysis was that the threshold for FSM entitlement will be frozen at £7400 and will not rise with inflation. The impact of this will be an estimated 80,000 – 100,000 not accessing a FSM over the next 4 years.
Whilst both political parties are claiming victory – we, as educationalists, should not accept any child losing out on a FSM. Children who receive free school meals perform educationally less well than their peers – Government data from the Department For Education (DfE) support this with a 28 percent gap between children receiving free school meals and their wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades. Therefore we need to ensure these children get their FSM as this will also entitle them to a pupil premium allowance to help reduce their attainment gap.
Currently, the Children’s Society estimate that a total of 15,100 Cumbrian children are living in poverty, with 11,400 of these children not claiming a free school meal. This data is surprising to many and can be explained in a variety of ways.
Some would argue that the threshold to claim free school meals is too high and therefore children who are living in poverty are not eligible to claim a free school meal, however, simple maths tells you this is not the case.
Claiming a FSM is an issue for so many Cumbrian families. I agree and acknowledge the system is set up relatively easy – a five-minute online form, which requires National Insurance information and an understanding of your income and benefits. For the majority of families, this would be straightforward. However, not for everyone.
Some families struggle with the literacy skills necessary to access and complete the forms. Some families do not speak English at all. Some families have no internet access. Some families don’t understand their own benefit entitlement, and whether they are eligible. Some families are too proud. Some families don’t want their child to stand out at school and hand over that lime green token. These reasons happen in all schools and in every school I’ve worked in. In my opinion, this is why there is a difference in the total number of children living in poverty and the total number of children accessing a FSM – although no data set is available to support this claim.
If a child is eligible for a FSM then they should get one. A child has no control over whether they get their entitlement – this needs to change.
One party has promoted the idea of all children receiving a FSM. I see the logic in every child receiving a FSM, and I can see the benefits of this especially with no child being missed. However, I don’t believe this should become government policy for all children; quite simply, some families can financially contribute. The government funding needed for every child to receive a FSM meal could be better spent by schools.
Whilst both main political parties disagree on the way forward, there is a simpler, centre ground solution that would appeal to all parties. The simplest solution, where no child that is entitled to a FSM misses out, would be to introduce an automatic rollout dependent on family income. This would be relatively simple, with the DWP liaising their data on family income with other government agencies and FSM should be automatically awarded if a child entitled to one. This way if a child is entitled to a FSM they will receive one. As educationalists we should be lobbying for this change.