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Research finds 250,000 eligible children missing out on free school meals

15th Mar 2024 - 07:00
Research finds 250,000 eligible children missing out on free school meals
On International School Meals Day (14th March 2024) charities and councils joined forces to send a letter to the Schools Minister Damian Hinds about the outdated opt-in system that has resulted in 250,000 eligible children missing out on free school meals and schools losing out on millions of much needed funding.

The letter was co-ordinated by the School Food Review, Bremner&Co, FixOurFood and The Food Foundation. It has been signed by 130 representative from charities, councils and academia including the NEU, CPAG and Feeding Britain.

Currently up to 250,000 children living in some of most deprived households in England are not receiving the daily hot, nutritious and healthy free school meal that they have a right to. Some local authorities using an opt-out rather than an opt-in system to receive free school meals report opt-out rates as low as under 1%.

Evidence from one local authority trialling auto-enrolment showed children from lone parent households, households with English as an additional language as well as children from Black, Asian and multi-ethnic backgrounds were most likely to not be signed up.

With 20% of households with children in the UK experiencing food insecurity in January 2024, the Food Foundation believes free school meals can lighten the financial burden on families struggling with the cost of living crisis.

Shona Goudie, policy and advocacy manager for The Food Foundation, commented: “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.” 

Five local authorities in England implemented free school meals auto-enrolment in October 2023 and found that over 2,500 additional children had been registered, bringing in over £4.5million in additional school funding.

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 free school meals 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 receive free school meals.

A new research study launched by the Children’s Food Campaign has also revealed that eight in ten (81%) parents support automatic registration for free school meals for all entitled pupils, instead of the current application system.

The letter calls on the Government to:

  • Commit to introducing a revised free school meals 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’ free school meals model 
  • Provide datasets to each council to show the current levels of under-registration, by combining relevant DfE and DWP datasets 
Written by
Edward Waddell