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    Food Foundation: outdated opt-in system means 250,000 children miss out on free school meals

    Photo: iStock

    Today, on International School Meals Day, a letter co-ordinated by the School Food Review, Bremner & Co and The Food Foundation and signed by 130 representative from charities, councils and academia including the NEU, CPAG and Feeding Britain, has been sent to Schools Minister, Damian Hinds, calling on the government to act now to ensure all children who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) are able to receive them. Currently up to 250,000 children living in some of the most deprived households are missing out on their statutory right to a daily hot nutritious free school meal, with reasons including administrative barriers and language issues.

    Evidence from Fix Our Food, one of the signatories of the letter, shows local authorities are taking matters into their own hands to test opt-out systems, including Wakefield, Lewisham and Lambeth. The results suggest that the current FSM registration process could be entrenching inequality in schools. For example, in Lambeth, 89 per cent of pupils newly registered for FSM came from lone parent households, 59 per cent came from households with English as an additional Language, and 79 per cent from Black, Asian and Multi-Ethnic backgrounds (compared to 66 per cent of the school population).

    Local authorities using an opt-out rather than an opt-in system to receive FSM report opt-out rates as low as under one per cent. This compares to the Department for Education’s own figures showing 11 per cent of pupils entitled to FSM are not registered to receive them under its scheme. The charities and councils cite complex administration, language or literacy issues and fear of stigma as some of the reasons for this.

    With 20 per cent of households with children in the UK experiencing food insecurity in January 2024, the need for FSM to lighten the financial burden on families struggling with the cost of living crisis remains urgent.

    Pupil premium funding is also given to schools in England for each primary pupil (£1,455 per year) and secondary pupil (£1,035 per year) who have been eligible for FSM at any point in the last six years. This means schools are missing out on this extra funding if eligible pupils are not signed up to FSM.

    Research from FixOurFood has pooled data from five local authorities in England which implemented FSM auto-enrolment in October 2023. Results suggested that over 2,500 additional children had been registered to receive free school meals as a result of auto-enrolment, bringing in over £4.5million in additional school funding. Wakefield City Council alone registered an additional 1,183 children through the opt-out model.

    As a matter of urgency, the letter calls on National Government to:

    • Commit to introducing a revised Free School Meal registration process so that all children entitled are automatically registered
    • In the interim, promote and support local authorities to implement the ‘opt-out/right to object’ FSM model
    • Provide datasets to each council to show the current levels of under-registration, by combining relevant DfE and DWP datasets

    Currently, outside of London, only children from households with an income below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are entitled to FSM; a threshold that has not increased since 2018. This is despite inflation and price rises. The Food Foundation and School Food Review are also calling on politicians across the spectrum to extend access to Free School Meals to all school children, with the first step being to immediately target children from families receiving Universal Credit.

    This call is backed by new data from the Children’s Food Campaign today showing nine in 10 parents (89 per cent) want to see immediate expansion of free school meals to every child living in poverty and more than seven in 10 parents (75 per cent) would like all children of all ages to have access to a free school meal, regardless of their background.

    Shona Goudie, Policy and Advocacy Manager, The Food Foundation, said, “We are extremely concerned that the opt-in system for free school meals is disproportionately impacting minority groups and further entrenching inequalities. Currently the administration to sign up is complex and burdensome and families can face language or literacy issues when trying to navigate the system. Free school meals are intended to provide a nutritional safety net for the poorest in society, but currently due to inefficient administration by national policymakers they are not reaching those who need them most.

    “Auto-enrolment should go hand in hand with increasing eligibility so that the 900,000 children living in poverty in England who are not currently eligible for free school meals are also able to benefit from a healthy, nutritious meal at school.”

    “Early evidence from our evaluation in areas that have launched auto-enrolment processes is already showing substantial impact on the numbers of additional children now entitled to free school meals and on the funding that this provides to schools,” said Prof Maria Bryant, University of York, Fix our Food. “Local authorities are committed to doing what’s best for their families, but, in our interviews, we are learning that the process takes a lot of time to implement. We will continue to gather this data to support decision making, particularly around the call for centralised auto-enrolment processes”

    Myles Bremner, CEO, Bremner & Co said: “There are far too many hoops that parents, schools and councils must go through just to be able to make sure that a child can receive a free school meal. Poor government policy and administration is to blame. This can be easily fixed – and doing so will be a triple bonus. It means our most vulnerable children can eat a free, hot nutritious meal. It will save hard-up parents money that can be used for other vital things. And it means that schools get the critical extra funding that government has allocated – to help our most disadvantaged children do well in school”.

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