One million children could go hungry under new plans for free school meals

Sam Royston, director of policy and research at The Children’s Society writes in the  Guardian. 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).

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.

Read the full article One million children could go hungry under new plans for free school meals

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