Free school meals plan will help more pupils, heads say – BBC News

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Image copyright School Food Plan
Image caption Too many children from low-income families are missing out on free school meals, say heads

Head teachers are urging MPs to back a plan to ensure all children from poorer homes are automatically registered for free school meals.

Parents often fail to apply for the meals for older pupils, says the National Association of Head Teachers.

The NAHT wants MPs to add a clause on auto-registration to a bill being debated on Monday.

It would ensure “more children get the support they are entitled to”, said NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby.

Until 2014 families had to apply for their children to have free school meals, which were open only to the most disadvantaged groups.

That year, the coalition government introduced universal free school meals for all children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2.

Knock-on effect

As all children were eligible, some low-income families stopped informing schools about their circumstances.

The knock-on effect was that once their children reached Year 3, they began to miss out, not only on free meals to which they were entitled, but on extra educational funding linked to being registered for the meals.

If adopted, an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill by four opposition MPs would automatically require local authorities to tell schools which of their pupils live in households claiming assistance such as housing benefit or council tax benefit and who would therefore be eligible for free meals.

Tony Draper, head of Water Hall Primary School in Bletchley near Milton Keynes, says registration rates for the meals there have dropped from 60% in 2014 to 28% this year.

“It’s way too low for this area. This is one of the most deprived estates in the country.”

Mr Draper argues that auto-registration would be a massive boost for families who are just about managing, a group the prime minister has said she wants to help.

He says some parents are too proud to admit they are on benefits.

“Auto-registration would take this issue away. It would be easy for the government to do.”

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Universal free school meals were introduced for infant children in 2014

The Pupil Premium, a sum of money paid to schools to enhance the education of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, also depends on pupils being registered for free school meals.

So if fewer parents apply for the meals, the school would get less Pupil Premium money and be less able to plan specialist help for children from low-income families, explained Mr Draper.

If adopted, the new clause “could deliver much-needed support and money for children and schools”, said Mr Hobby.

The union says it would be an easy change and would show the government’s “true commitment to social mobility”.

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