free school meals

Headteachers should give change back to pupils receiving free school meals, a charity has said, after a new report found £65 million of unspent funds are kept by meal providers each year.

Citizens UK warned unspent funding for free meals is not rolled over to use another day but kept by providers, often private companies, schools or councils. One school has already returned an estimated £17,000 to pupils.

All 750,000 secondary school pupils current receiving free school meals are thought to be affected by the issue which sees any remaining credit deducted from the allowance of pupils at the end of every day.

The charity has now launched a national Just Change campaign, calling for an “equal treatment principle” that says pupils receiving free school meals should be entitled to their unspent lunch money like other pupils are to “avoid hunger and stigma”.

They also want a written commitment from catering providers and ring-fenced central government funding to ensure all money earmarked for free school meals children is spent on them.

A regional Just Change campaign began in Citizens UK’s north east chapter, and has so far prompted two schools to change their free school meals system to return change to pupils. A further three schools have now committed to the change.

Maura Regan, chief executive of the Carmel College Trust, which has already made the change, said her school had been “blissfully ignorant” of the “unintended consequence” of the system, and that she felt there was a “moral imperative to act”.

“It appeared that we were supporting pupils on free school meals, but in reality we were stifling them and creating difficulties.

“Once you become aware of something like that it has to become a catalyst for change.”

Regan, who estimates the change has seen £17,000 returned to pupils, said the “bottom line is quite simply that the money wasn’t ours… the money belongs to the children.”

Park View School in Chester-le-Street, Durham, was the first school to uncover the issue in 2017.

Assistant headteacher Alison Moore said she was “shocked and surprised” when she found out about the problems pupils were having with the way the school administered school meals.