Millions of pounds 'missing' in school meals funding

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Millions of pounds allocated by the Government for free school meals for some of the poorest children in the country is unaccounted for, according to a new report.

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The report estimates that more than £88m in funding for free school meals is unaccounted for

The research 'Hungry for Change', published today by anti-poverty charity Feeding Britain, estimates that in one year £88.3 million allocated to local authorities to provide free school meals for eligible children ‘disappeared’. 

This estimate has prompted Frank Field MP to request a National Audit Office inquiry into the free school meals budget.

The report’s findings are due to be discussed today during a debate on the Children's Future Food Inquiry.

The researchers from Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Research Lab analysed data for primary and secondary pupils in England who were eligible for and claiming free school meals.

All pupils in state funded schools, up to the age of seven, are entitled to universal infant free school meals. For pupils who are older than seven, their eligibility is means tested. 

On the date of their census they found that almost 20 per cent of means-tested and eligible free school meals pupils had not taken the meal available to them due to absenteeism. However, Government allocated funds were used to pay for the meal.

Using official data available for all 152 local authorities in England, the report shows that some of the most deprived areas in the country are worst affected by a situation where pupils entitled to free school meals are not able to spend the money available to them on school food.

Estimates for local authorities in Yorkshire, the North East, North West, South West and East of England indicate that many lost more than £1m during the 2016-2017 academic year.

The report estimates that during this period alone the total of the missing funding is more than £88m.

It says, ‘Given the evidence presented in this report we feel compelled to ask, “What happens to this money?”We recommend that the DfE immediately sets in hand an audit to find out where the money goes and, on the back of this exercise, introduces a new policy requiring all unspent moneyto be recycled directly towards the feeding or schooling of those children who are currently losing out. Having decided that these sums should be spent on improving the nutrition and life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such a policy is required from the DfE to ensure this decision is honoured in full.’

The report’s co-author Professor Greta Defeyter said, ‘Free school meal funding is administered by local authorities, with many secondary schools using smart cards to manage these payments. Secondary school pupils who are in receipt of free school meals have money credited to their smart cards to pay for their daily meals.

'At the end of each day, the card is wiped of its credit. This means if a pupil is absent from school, misses lunch or does not use the full monetary entitlement, it is removed from the pupils account.

‘In contrast, where parents pay for their child’s meals, any unspent credit remaining on their card at the end of the day rolls over and accumulates.’

Co-author Professor Paul Stretesky added that the figure of £88.3 million is likely to be conservative, because the data only captures information on pupils who were absent from school on the census date and does not include pupils who skipped lunch, or those who did not spend their full daily entitlement.

In addition, the analysis is also based solely on pupils in receipt of means-tested free school meals and does not look at meals not taken under the universal infant free school meal programme.

Frank Field MP who has secured a House of Commons debate on the Children's Future Food Inquiry will raise the report's findings. 

‘Having decided that these sums should be spent on improving the nutrition and life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a fresh audit is required from the Government to ensure this decision is being honoured in full,' he said.

‘Once it has found out where the money goes, we then need ministers to require all unspent money to be recycled directly towards the feeding or schooling of those children who are currently losing out.’

The Department for Education has been asked for a comment.

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