Secondary school pupils from the most disadvantaged families who are entitled to free school meals are losing out on tens of millions of pounds every year in unspent lunch funds, according to an investigation by a charity.
Citizens UK said free school meals money that is not spent by a pupil, perhaps because they are off sick or have missed lunch due to sport commitments, or have not spent the full amount – , is retained by the school meal provider rather than held in the pupil’s account for another day.
The charity said the problem is widespread and estimated the losses could be as much as £65m across the UK – a figure disputed by the Department for Education (DfE) – with the unspent funds being held either by private companies providing lunches, local authorities or schools. Pupils receiving free school meals, meanwhile, say not having access to their total entitlement makes them feel stigmatised.
A pupil-led campaign has been launched to highlight the problem. One year 8 student from Kenton school in Newcastle upon Tyne said: “This campaign is important to us because it allows us to express how we [pupils on free school meals] are being treated differently to people who pay for their school meals.
“Some of our friends said that if they could keep the change, they would buy extra food for the mornings, for example, if they can’t get breakfast at home. But because they can’t keep the change, they can never do that.”
About 750,000 secondary school pupils in the UK are eligible for free school meals, at a cost per student of about £440 a year. The charity said its figures are based on school census data that shows about 20% of free school meals are not taken up on each school day.
Luke Bramhall from the charity Children North East, which is involved in the campaign, said: “This is a national issue. From Brighton to Middlesbrough, from Manchester to Scunthorpe, Children North East has spoken to over 65,000 pupils in more than 180 schools across England as part of ‘Poverty-Proofing the School Day’, which identifies barriers to equality of experience in education.
“Across the country, we are told about how the money allocated to children on free school meals is taken off them at the end of the day and that children are going without as a result.”
Some schools have already taken action to address what appears to be an unintended consequence of the system. Maura Regan, the chief executive of the Carmel Education Trust in Darlington, County Durham, said all three schools in her trust had made a small change to their IT systems to ensure pupils on free school meals kept their unused allowance.
“As teachers, we have a duty to ensure every child reaches their full potential. The FSM provision is designed to benefit children whose families can’t always put food on the table for them and to reduce levels of extreme hunger in schools,” she said.
“We must ensure that this money that is so important for protecting our children and levelling the playing field is not taken from them in any way.”
The DfE has been contacted for comment.
Meanwhile, the DfE has announced that about 50,000 disadvantaged children will be offered free meals and activities over the summer holidays at a cost of £9.1m. The scheme follows a £2m programme last year that reached 18,000 children across the country.
Activities on offer will include sports, healthy cooking classes for children and their parents or carers, as well as targeted support for the most vulnerable families who are in contact with social services.
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