One million children could go hungry under new plans for free school meals
The government’s plans to push through changes to free school meals entitlement, childcare vouchers and free childcare for two-year-olds without a vote in parliament were recently thrown into disarray by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner. She has been granted a three-hour debate and series of votes on the changes after chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring statement on 13 March.
While the rollout of universal credit has got underway, the children of parents who receive it have been entitled to free school meals. Were this to continue, it would have ensured almost all children living in poverty, including those in low income working families, would have received a guaranteed school lunch every day. However, the government now intends to introduce a net household earnings threshold of £7,400 (£18,000 to £24,000 a year including benefits).
We estimate that 1 million school children – largely in working families – will be affected by the government’s plans. Once a family with one child passes the £7,400 mark, they would need to earn an extra £1,000 a year, working 2.4 hours more each week at the national living wage, to cover the cost. Our past research(pdf) has also found loss of free school meals is a major disincentive to work, with six out of 10 parents admitting it has an impact on their decision to move into work or take on additional hours. For many, the alternative – finding the extra money – is nothing short of an impossible task.
One mum told us that after she’d started work, and lost free school meals for her son, she sometimes had to send him to school with just a bread roll for lunchtime. We hear of children staying behind while their class goes on a school trip, mothers going without winter coats, or fathers living on toast for dinner, so that they can cover the cost. Bringing up children on a low income is a fine balancing act each and every day. Having a guaranteed, healthy lunch at school is nothing short of a lifeline.
The government’s proposal will not impact children in reception, year 1 and year 2 who are part of the universal infant free school meal programme, which was introduced by the coalition government in 2013. We had launched our Fair and Square campaign in 2012, calling for all children in low-income households to benefit, and were pleased with the progress this significant step forward a year later. But many older children are still missing out.
One of the barriers we have faced with our ongoing campaign has been that many people, including MPs, wrongly believe that all children in poverty already get free school meals. In fact, before universal credit was introduced, it was only children in families claiming out of work benefits who qualified, meaning hundreds of thousands of children in struggling working families missed out. Working poverty is on the rise in the UK, with 67% of the 4 million children in poverty now from working families, and they will make up the majority of 5 million children set to be in poverty by 2020.
Not only would broadening access to free school meals this way reach more children in poverty, it would also play an important role in tackling the stigma. Headteachers from primary schools have told us the universal offer for infants has been fantastic in bringing children together at lunchtimes.
Schools, charities and local authorities understand the important role free school meals play – in North Lanarkshire, the council plans to provide free meals to children who need them 365 days a year to combat holiday and weekend hunger. Food banks have reported that demand doubles during school holidays, and a survey by the National Union of Teachers in England, found a third of teachers said pupils returned to school with signs of malnourishment after a break.
Last year, a cross-party group of MPs and peers recognised that up to 3 million children are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays, undermining their education and life chances. That included 1 million children that received free school meals and 2 million who did not but whose families are in working poverty. Faced with that evidence, the provision of free school meals should be expanding, not taken away from those that need it most.
Here is a golden opportunity to tip what is an increasingly precarious balancing act ever so slightly in struggling families’ favour.
- Sam Royston is the director of policy and research at The Children’s Society.