Many children living in poverty not eligible for free school meals

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Huge numbers of children living below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals according to research by The Children's Society.


More than half of the 2.2 million school children living in poverty in England miss out on free school meals. Of these, 700,000 are not even entitled to them due to the criteria that are currently in place to decide eligibility. The rest are believed not to take up the offer because of the stigma attached to it or because parents are unaware of the scheme.

Families in England and Wales with a child at state school are normally entitled to receive free school meals if a parent works under 16 hours a week (24 hours for couples) and if their annual income is less than £16,190. The estimated price for a child’s school lunches for the year is £370.

Researchers looked at the figures of child poverty in each constituency and cross-referenced those with the number of children who claim free school meals. The study was organised by constituencies to encourage people to contact their MPs to change the requirements to ensure more children receive school meals.

The charity defined poverty levels as families living below 60 per cent of the median income, which the charity calculates as below £529 a week for a couple with two children.

The analysis found that in 57 constituencies, more than 60 per cent of children living in poverty were ineligible or failing to claim free school meals. The highest proportion of children living in poverty missing out on free school meals are in the east, south east and south west of England and London. The joint top two constituencies are Horsham, and Bognor Regis and Littlehampton at 69 per cent closely followed by Mitcham and Morden, and Arundel and South Downs at 68 per cent.

Out of England’s 533 constituencies, only 22 (all of them in north England and the Midlands) have fewer than ten per cent of children in poverty not receiving free school meals.

Matthew Reed, the chief executive of The Children’s Society, said, ‘It is shocking that huge numbers of children in poverty across the country are missing out on a free school meal. Every child in poverty should be entitled to this vital support. We know from the families that we work with up and down the country that parents are struggling to make ends meet. Right now, the Government is reconsidering which children might be entitled to get free school meals. We urge the Government to take this opportunity to make sure all children in poverty can get a free school meal.’

The society’s Fair and Square campaign aims to make free school meals available to all families receiving universal credit from October. At an estimated cost of £500m a year in England, this would take 100,000 children out of poverty and enable the Government to keep child poverty rates on track. They recently presented a petition with over 90,000 signatures to Downing Street.

Linda Cregan, chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust, said, ‘Evidence shows that when children eat better, they do better in class. Poor diet and hunger have a marked detrimental impact on a child’s ability to reach their full potential.

Every pupil should be given the same chance to learn and achieve and that’s why it’s important that all children from families who receive universal tax credit should automatically qualify for free school meals. If granted, the next step would be to support schools in making sure families register for them and take them.’

The Department of Education (DfE) estimates that proposals to extend free school meals to all children whose parents are in receipt of universal credit would mean that more than half of all children would receive free school meals at a cost of £1bn a year.

The DfE said, ‘No child should go hungry at school – 1.3 million of the most disadvantaged children currently claim a free, nutritious meal at school every day. Some schools also provide breakfast clubs which offer free or subsidised meals to pupils from poorer families. In addition the pupil premium, which will increase to £900 per pupil – £2.5bn a year – in 2014-15, targets extra money to ensure schools can provide support to the most disadvantaged children.’


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