Hike school breakfast funding and expand free school meals, Hunt told

150 heads call for school breakfast cash in the spring budget, while councils warn government rules stop 215,000 eligible children getting free school meals

150 heads call for school breakfast cash in the spring budget, while councils warn government rules stop 215,000 eligible children getting free school meals

17 Feb 2023, 0:00

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A group of 150 headteachers has urged the chancellor to hike school breakfast funding at next month’s budget, warning pupils are “unable” to learn and disrupting lessons as hunger is “steadily getting worse”.

A letter co-ordinated by the Magic Breakfast charity to Jeremy Hunt said he must act on a recent speech which called providing a good education a moral and economic “mission”.

It comes as the Local Government Association also warned 215,000 eligible children were not receiving free school meals, with councils backing a “streamlined” system of auto-enrolment rather than parents having to apply.

Hunger ‘makes teaching incredibly difficult’

In their letter, heads warned the national school breakfast programme, which is funded by the government until 2024, will only reach a quarter of the 10,000 schools across England that experience “high” levels of disadvantage.

They made an “urgent request” for the chancellor to hike funding by up to £18 million in his spring budget on March 15, saying it could double the number of schools able to receive subsidised breakfasts.

Signatories include heads from across the country, including both maintained schools and academies, with some run by large trusts like Ark Schools, Co-op Academies, Harris Federation, Northern Education Trust, Oasis and the GORSE Academies Trust.

The letter reads: “We know from our own experiences that too many children today come to school unable to focus, concentrate, or learn because of the hunger they feel.”

The authors said it was not only a “moral” issue, as also “practically, it makes teaching incredibly difficult”.

“We try each day to connect with children and create inspiring lessons to help them engage and learn. But when they are hungry, they cannot focus, and their behaviour changes: they can become unsettled and disruptive, which impacts the whole classroom and our teachers’ abilities to teach.

“All of us have seen the impact that morning hunger can have in the classroom – and it is steadily getting worse.”

The leaders highlighted a poll late last year suggesting four million children lacked adequate access to food at home.

Cost-of-living squeeze exacerbates problems

Jenny Adamson, head of Saffron Valley Collegiate, a pupil referral unit in south London, said the current financial crisis “has heightened what was already a significant deficiency for our young people”. 

“The pupils for whom we are able to offer food in the morning and mid-morning break are able to bring more of their ‘best self’ to the table.”

Magic Breakfast was previously part of the national school breakfast programme, along with current provider Family Action.

But it did not bid for the extension funding in 2021, saying it “did not believe the terms of the contract would allow us to meet our charitable mission – to ensure no child is too hungry to learn”.

The organisation noted the scheme had paused new applications, with its website stating it had been “hugely popular” and existing applicants were being prioritised.

But Magic Breakfast also warned its own food and fuel costs have soared by a fifth in a year, meaning it “costs 20 per cent more to provide breakfast to the same number of children”.

LGA backs automatic free school meals

The NSBP was previously fully subsidised for schools, but government began requiring a 25 per cent school contribution from July 2022.

Only 2,170 schools were signed up as of last November, but a government spokesperson said last month it was “on track to meet the 2,500 target very soon”.

Councils have also heaped pressure on government to “urgently” help more children receive means-tested free school meals, worth around £470 a year, as food prices soar.

The LGA said today local authorities wanted auto-enrolment for those eligible, with 11 per cent of children not receiving FSM they are entitled to, as their parents have not signed up.

Their sign-ups would also trigger additional pupil premium funding for the same children, generating “tens of millions” more for schools.

Other council demands include long-term discretionary hardship funding and a review of the £7,400 annual income threshold where FSM eligibility stops, which has not changed since 2018 despite rising inflation.

DfE: 270,000 pupils get free breakfast

A Department for Education spokesperson said the NSBP was a “lifeline to families”.

“We know this supports attainment, wellbeing and readiness to learn, which is why we’re investing up to £30 million in the programme, to help up to 2,500 schools in the most disadvantaged areas.

“This is alongside supporting more young people than ever before by providing over a third of pupils in England with free schools meals in education settings.”

The spokesperson said an estimated 270,000 use the national school breakfast programme on an average day, while free school meal eligibility has been gradually extended and councils have their own household support funds.

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