The government has been accused of “standing idly by while children go hungry” after new analysis showed that more than 200,000 of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSMs) in England are missing out because they are not registered.
Campaigners have urged ministers to automate the enrolment process using social security records, amid fears that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are going hungry because they have not signed up.
Up to 234,500 children who meet the criteria for FSMs are not registered, according to new analysis by the Liberal Democrats. As well as disadvantaged children missing out on their entitlement to a free lunch, schools also lose vital additional funding which supports their learning.
Pupil premium funding is given to schools in England for each primary pupil (£1,385 per year) and secondary pupil (£985 per year) who has been eligible for FSMs at any point in the last six years.
Zoe McIntyre, project manager of Children’s Right2Food, said auto-enrolment would be a swift and effective way of maximising take-up of FSM and removing barriers to entitlement such as lack of awareness, language barriers and an application process that can be “stigmatising and confusing” for some eligible families.
“This would be as simple as shifting to an ‘opt-in’ automated process to make sure every child entitled to a FSM can access one,” she said. “Auto-registration should go hand in hand with increasing eligibility so that the 800,000 children in poverty who are currently excluded from accessing FSM are able to benefit from a healthy, nutritious meal at school.”
In January 2022, about 1.9 million pupils were registered for FSM, but according to the government, takeup is about 89% of those who are entitled, meaning more than one in 10 children who meet the criteria are not benefiting. The Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Munira Wilson, urged ministers not to let children go hungry simply because their parents do not know their rights.
“The cost-of-living crisis is having a devastating impact on child poverty and hunger. Yet thousands of children are suffering needlessly because their families don’t know that they are entitled to free school meals or that they need to apply for them,” she said.
“Government ministers are standing idly by while children go hungry, expecting them to learn on empty stomachs. Parents should not have to jump through additional hoops to ensure their children are well fed when the government already knows which families are entitled to free school meals.”
The Liberal Democrats are among those campaigning for free school meals to be extended to all children in households in receipt of universal credit (UC). Under the current system, families receiving UC need to earn less than £7,400 (excluding benefits) to qualify for FSM.
This week the chef and school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver renewed calls for the government to expand the provision of free school meals, saying it could be funded by a sugar tax.
There is also concern about access to FSM vouchers over holidays as the cost of living crisis bites. Local authorities are implementing the government’s holiday activities and food programme, which the government has announced will continue in 2023 with an additional £200m in funding. The programme covers only six weeks, however, rather than all school holidays.
The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said: “Giving children access to nutritious meals and fun, enriching activities over the holidays supports children’s mental, physical and social development and offers them opportunities that they may otherwise not have, whilst helping parents who may not be able to afford similar childcare.”
Additional funding for councils comes from the £421m household support fund, some of which is ringfenced for families with children, but campaigners say not all councils are using this to supply food vouchers, creating a postcode lottery for those in greatest need.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings, and we have just announced a further investment in the national school breakfast programme, extending the programme for another year until July 2024, backed by up to £30m.”