School food policy requires a shift from ministers and campaigners

Universal free school meals are a distraction from a simple change that would see food reach 200,000 pupils who are already eligible for them, says Andy Jolley

Universal free school meals are a distraction from a simple change that would see food reach 200,000 pupils who are already eligible for them, says Andy Jolley

14 May 2023, 5:00

More than half of school caterers said they had or were considering using more processed ingredients in school dinners due to cost and supply issues

With free school meals (FSM) policy back in the headlines, it is worth highlighting the single most effective action government could take to reduce child poverty and combat food insecurity: automating the registration of children for FSM.

At the moment, families in need of financial support apply for universal credit (UC). If they meet the criteria for FSM eligibility (currently an income of £7,400), they then apply to the school who check the validity of the claim before they can provide the food and receive pupil premium funding.

For starters, the £7,400 figure was reverse-engineered to ensure the numbers of eligible children didn’t increase with the switch-over to UC. More than that, it was designed to allow the government to gradually reduce claimant numbers by keeping the income threshold static just as inflation ate away at eligibility. In my opinion, it is far too low.

What’s more, the extra step of applying to the school for funding acts a barrier for around 11 per cent of all eligible children. In England alone, that’s over 200,000 pupils who don’t receive the food support they are entitled to.

I’m not alone in raising concerns. I first wrote about this in 2015, and I know Frank Field regularly raised the matter in parliament. It’s a year since the National Governance Association raised the issue, and it is highlighted in last month’s London Assembly economy committee report on solutions to food insecurity.

The solution seems fairly obvious: When anyone with school-aged children applies for UC, the children should be flagged up to the school and they should receive their food. In reality, as someone who spent his working life in IT, I appreciate that there are some complexities involved, but nothing unsurmountable.

200,000+ pupils don’t receive the support they are entitled to

Not least among the challenges of delivering this simple fix is the dreaded GDPR. The UC claimant data at DWP is distinct and separate from school-level FSM data, and government departments tend to get a bit twitchy around sharing this kind of information. I suspect the solution will require some kind of permission and acknowledgment to be included in the UC application process.

My assumption is that we will need to see a big file from DWP that gets cross-matched against DfE pupil data. But while this sounds relatively easy in technical terms, it means a significant shift in how DfE process their information. It goes from bottom-up to top-down – from schools asking DfE to validate FSM claims, to checking everyone and passing the data down to schools. It’s absolutely doable, but there are some sizable system changes involved.

There’s no doubt DfE are aware of what’s needed, but we just haven’t had anyone with the political will to drive the change. Back in December 2014, David Laws told the education select committee: “We’re working on a medium-term solution which would remove the bureaucracy…. Actually it is sensible to have a data sharing arrangement in government so we can automatically identify these people”. Nine years on, nothing has happened.

Not least, this is because of the significant financial implications. Moving 200,000 children onto free school meals will immediately land DfE with an extra bill of £500,000 a day. What’s more, on top of this annual £100 million cost, all these children will also be entitled to pupil premium – another £250 million per year. And because of the ‘Ever 6’ aspect of pupil premium and the current transitional arrangements, the £1,750 per-pupil annual cost could be ongoing for up to 6 years, adding up to a price tag of up to a £1.5 billion.

Having said that, ministerial prevarication since 2014 has saved DfE over £3 billion that should have been spent supporting our most vulnerable children. And in reality, no new money is needed to fund it; it’s just a question of ensuring children receive the support they’re entitled to.

Which should mean it’s an easy win for campaigners at a time when food poverty is reaching record highs. But it means a change for them too – away from the distraction of expensive an unevidenced universal FSM and towards prioritising automatic registration and support for those in greatest need.

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