Pupils should be automatically enrolled for free school meals
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, says that automatic enrolment for free school meals should be introduced
The sign-up process for free school meals should be simplified so that over a million more pupils can access them, councils have said.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, has said that automatic enrolment for free school meals (FSM) should be introduced, while eligibility for FSM should be expanded for all pupils who meet the income criteria, regardless of their family circumstances.
The Government is expected to publish its White Paper on food strategy shortly with new proposals on how to tackle inequalities in access to healthy food.
In the National Food Strategy, published in 2021, businessman and campaigner Henry Dimbleby called for pupils eligible for FSM to be automatically enrolled, as well as for FSM criteria to be expanded, which the LGA is calling on the Government to include in the White Paper.
Although the Government has data on which pupils are eligible, parents currently have to apply for FSM through their local authority or through their child’s academy school.
Government estimates suggest that automatic enrolment could capture the 11% of eligible pupils who have not applied for FSM, which would equate to 215,000 pupils in England under the current eligibility criteria, analysis by the LGA and Child Poverty Action Group shows.
The LGA said that automatic enrolment would also generate tens of millions of pounds in additional pupil premium funding for schools, as this is allocated based on the number of free school meals claims per school.
If the income threshold for FSM was changed and immigration limitations on eligibility were lifted permanently, a further 1.1 million pupils could benefit from free school meals, “for example if the threshold was raised to £20,000 and extended to include those families who are undocumented or with no recourse to public funds, as recommended in the strategy”, the LGA said.
Councillor Shaun Davies, chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Rising food, fuel and other costs affect everybody, but particularly low-income households with children who rely on extra support to make ends meet.
“Given these pressures, it is absolutely essential that all those who are eligible can get the help they need, including access to free school meals, at a time when we know the price of food and the general cost of living are spiralling.”
“Streamlining and removing the red tape in the applications process, so that councils get given the information they need, is vital if we are to ensure no child misses out on a healthy meal,” he added.
“The Government should also urgently look to raise the earnings threshold and permanently extend the criteria to those who are currently not eligible due to immigration status, including for undocumented parents and those who are not able to access public funds, so that no child goes hungry.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “The LGA is right to point out the importance of ensuring no child or young person eligible for free school meals misses out on this essential service which is vital both for pupils’ education and health.
“Extending the criteria for those qualifying for FSM is also a necessity. Demand has been growing for years, but first with the pandemic and now with the cost-of-living crisis gripping families across the country it is needed more than ever.”
“While families living in poverty need far more wide-ranging support than they currently receive, free school meals are a lifeline. For many children it will be the only meal they are getting in the day. If the Government’s intentions of ‘levelling up’ are to be taken seriously, then this is one area they must not overlook.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access to them more than any other government in recent decades.
“We encourage schools to help children sign up for free school meals and work with councils to make the checking process more straightforward.
“We are continually considering what further steps we could take to improve the take-up of FSM, and welcome ideas and contributions on the best ways to do that.”Published: by Radio NewsHub