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LACA national chair Anne Bull: We must act to reassure parents about stigmatisation

LACA response to ISER research into free school meals

LACA gives its comments regarding a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) into the factors that inhibit Free School Meal take up.

ISER estimates that although 1.1 million children are entitled to Free School Meals (FSMs), around 300,000 are not taking up them up or registering for the benefit.

According to the study, over 25% of children entitled to FSMs take a packed lunch instead because they fear being stigmatised. The study revealed that segregation and stigmatisation are the two key factors that are affecting FSM take up.

As a result of the lack of space in schools, children who are entitled to FSMs but take packed lunches often end up having to sit apart from their friends who take school lunches.

Cash-payment systems which require FSM pupils to present vouchers for their meals, were identified as a cause of stigmatisation.

The financial cost to parents of not claiming the benefit is about £400 a year per child.  Aside from the country’s most nutritionally vulnerable children missing out on a healthy, hot school lunch, schools also lose out on a £600 per child payment under the Government’s Pupil Premium scheme.

The latter goes direct to the schools for the purpose of providing extra support for those children from poorer backgrounds.

Commenting on the findings by the ISER study, Anne Bull, LACA National Chair said: “Free school meals were first introduced in this country as a welfare service and in a period of budget cuts and economy measures, poverty levels are growing and that service is as important now as it has ever been in the past.

“With obesity levels also still rising, children missing out on a healthy, balanced free school meal are at even more risk of being driven towards fatty snacks and sweets.

“With studies having shown that children who eat better, do better at school, the provision of free school meals for the most vulnerable children in society who are nutritionally at risk, is also important as part of the measures being taken to close the educational attainment gap and help children achieve their potential.

“Improving diet and lifestyle can help them make the most of their education which for many is the route out of poverty.

“We must do all we can to ensure that parental concern over their children being singled out, does not force parents to opt for packed lunches.

“For families on low incomes, these are likely to be far less nutritious than a hot school lunch. Having a school meal means they are more likely to be able to eat with friends.

“With peer pressure being an important motivator, this is one solution to driving FSM take up. Head Teachers can implement simple, cost neutral measures to ensure pupils can eat together, even if space is at a premium, such as by staggering lunch breaks.

“As was found in the ISER study, initiatives such as anonymous payment schemes for parents to either pay or receive the benefit, can help to increase take up.

“The introduction of cashless payment systems either online or by smart cards, ensure that all children are treated the same at lunchtimes. Sensitive liaison with families is also needed by schools in order to identify those who are unaware of their eligibility for FSMs, so that they can be encouraged to register for their entitlement.

“Given the far reaching benefits of good nutrition, the opportunity of a daily hot school meal should be seen as every child’s right. Free school meals should be available to all families whose income is deemed below the poverty line.

“With the reform of the welfare system underway and the possible changes to entitlement levels, LACA is, along with a number of other children’s health and welfare bodies, working hard to ensure that the Government maintains free school meal eligibility for all families who will be in receipt of the new Universal Credit.”