‘Significant rise in pupils receiving free school meals’

Finnish school lunch

Over a third of education staff said there has been an increase in the uptake of free school meals (FSM) at their school or college in the past five years, with most believing the rise is due to the recession and more parents being made redundant, according to a survey conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

A teacher in a secondary academy said: “Prolonged rural poverty, lack of job opportunities in the local area, an increase in single parent families and home breakdown” were responsible for the increase in eligibility among pupils.

The survey found that three-quarters (76%) of education staff believe their school or college does enough to ensure those eligible for FSM receive them, by providing information about how to apply for them.

However, some respondents believe that some schools are making a concerted effort to advertise FSM to increase their funding, with Sue Wright, a teacher in a secondary academy in Kent, commenting: “A free school meal attracts the pupil premium so schools are advertising it more to generate more income.”

Almost 10% of respondents said pupils eligible for FSM in their school or college do not actually eat them. Of these, 44% said they believe it is because pupils don’t like the food that is on offer, and 41% believed the children prefer to bring in their own food.

Encouragingly, almost three-quarters (74%) said it is not easy for pupils to identify who receives FSM, particularly in schools that use swipe cards which are pre-loaded for those on FSM. 
Victoria Aindow, a primary teaching assistant from Wigan said: “New technology is slowly being introduced into secondary school where, through the cashless system, it is not possible for pupils to be able to identify peers who are registered for FSM. The [wider] use of these systems in the primary sector would benefit pupils, parents and staff through the pre-ordering system and through ease of payment.”

Although half of respondents felt that there should not be any universal entitlement for FSM for any age groups, 44% of respondents believe that there should be for all primary pupils, and 23% believe that all secondary school pupils should also be entitled to them.

For those pupils who pay for their meals, the survey also revealed that the cost has gone up this academic year, with 62% saying they had increased; 82% of these respondents said they have gone up by less than 50p. Based on a 50p a-day rise over the period of a school year (190 days) that would mean an extra £95 per-year for each child for parents or carers to find, when they are already being financially squeezed and losing important benefits.

Although 60% said the price of meals charged to students in their school or college represented value-for-money, 34% said they did not.

Although three-quarters said that they believe the meals served in their school or college are of a healthy standard, almost a fifth disagreed.

Eighty-two per cent of respondents felt that new academies should abide by compulsory nutritional standards, which maintained schools already have to do.

ATL general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said: “It is no surprise that, in the current economical climate, there has been an increase in the uptake of FSM.

“It is encouraging to hear that three-quarters of respondents feel their school or college does enough to ensure those eligible for FSM receive them by making sure it is advertised; after-all, for some children it may be their only hot meal of the day.”

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