More than a quarter of children entitled to free school meals take a packed lunch instead because they fear being stigmatised, according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research. This is from the Observer…
The study highlighted two key factors why around 300,000 of more than 1.1 million children entitled to the benefit do not take it up. In many schools lack of space or the way seating is organised mean pupils taking school dinners eat separately from those who bring sandwiches from home. Children on free school meals often end up sitting apart from their friends.
The second reason, according to the report, is that in some schools which operate cash-payment systems, the free school meal pupils are singled out because they hand over vouchers instead. The financial cost to parents of not claiming the benefit is about £400 a year per child. The report points out that free school meals “represent a social safety net, providing a minimum nutritional intake to children for whom malnutrition would otherwise hinder their physical and cognitive development, and increase the likelihood of disruptive classroom behaviours”.
Aside from the nutritional benefit to children, schools are also keen to boost the number of families on low income who apply for free school meals because this triggers payment of the pupil premium. The payment, worth £600 per child, goes direct to schools and is supposed to provide extra support to those from poorer backgrounds.
Researcher Angus Holford at ISER, based at Essex University, looked at the effects of the Scottish government’s experiment during the academic year 2007-2008 to give all pupils aged five to eight free school meals in five highly deprived areas. He found nonparticipation fell by 30% among those entitled both during and after the experiment.
Holford wrote: “These individuals were likely to be from the most deprived, ‘hardest-to-reach’ backgrounds, and hence stood to benefit most.”
He then looked at every primary school in Scotland. In schools using anonymous payment schemes – where parents preregister to pay or receive the benefit online for example – take-up went up substantially.
But Holford said this was only one way to improve participation. Getting more pupils who are not eligible for free meals to eat school lunches instead of sandwiches brought from home also helps. This is because it reduces the likelihood that a child on free school meals has to sit apart from his friends and also sends a signal that school meals are tasty and of good quality.