'A cut disguised as kindness’ – concerns over free school meal reforms

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite Department for Education claims, campaigners fear that thousands of families will lose out on free school meals under planned Universal Credit reforms. Pete Henshaw reports

Serious concerns have been raised that planned government reforms to free school meal (FSM) entitlement under Universal Credit will mean thousands of families living in poverty will lose out.

The Department for Education (DfE) claims that its proposals will protect any pupils who would otherwise lose entitlement to FSMs under Universal Credit.

Furthermore, it claims that up to 50,000 more young people should be eligible for FSMs once Universal Credit is fully rolled out.

However, in recent weeks both the Children’s Society and the GMB union have raised serious concerns about the potential impact of the reforms.

A DfE consultation over the plans closed last week and in its formal response, the GMB, which represents school catering and lunchtime supervision staff, has cast doubt on the claim that more pupils will be entitled to FSMs than under the current system.

General secretary Tim Roache labelled the plans as “a cut disguised as kindness”.

The Children’s Society, meanwhile, believes that one million poor children will lose out under the new threshold and that a “cliff edge” will be created whereby many families would be better off taking a pay cut in order to keep FSM entitlement.

As Universal Credit has been rolling out, all families in receipt of the new benefit have been automatically entitled to FSMs.

However, the DfE wants to introduce means-testing for FSMs under Universal Credit. Its proposal is to change FSM eligibility criteria to base it on a household’s net earnings, rather than the number of hours worked as is currently the case. A household’s net earnings would not include their additional income through benefits.

As such, the plans would see a net income threshold of £7,400 per year before benefits are taken into account. This would be introduced in April this year.

However, the GMB claims that under the £7,400 threshold, only the lowest earning 20 per cent of households would be entitled to FSM. Its analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that 65 per cent of expenditure on FSM currently benefits households outside this group.

It says that this “strongly suggests that there will be a significant loss of FSM entitlement for thousands of pupils”.

Furthermore, figures from the Children’s Society suggest that once a family with one child passes the £7,400 threshold, they would need to earn £1,124 a year more to make up for the loss in FSM (the equivalent of working 2.4 hours more each week at national living wage).

The charity says that if the government continued to offer FSM to all families on Universal Credit, then two million children would benefit once roll-out is complete. However, under the current plans, it warns that only 700,000 of as estimated 1,700,000 school children living in poverty will receive FSM.

However, the DfE’s consultation states that all children currently receiving FSM “should continue to benefit from this until the full roll-out of Universal Credit, and then until they reach the end of their current education stage (primary or secondary school)”.

It adds: “Under our proposed threshold, a number of low-income households who are not currently entitled to FSM will become newly entitled, and the vast majority (around 90 per cent) of pupils currently eligible for FSM will continue to be eligible.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “At least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced. Continuing to provide FSM for all children on Universal Credit would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low-income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise. Universal Credit was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.

“If the government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering FSM for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.”

Mr Roache added: “These plans should concern all parents and everyone who works in schools. At least one hot, nutritious meal a day should be a fundamental right for all pupils. Instead thousands of kids from deprived backgrounds are now being threatened by a new cut disguised as a kindness.

“GMB members working in schools already encounter children with no food at home, and see packed lunches of no more than crisps or chocolate, because parents are struggling to make ends meet.

“This arbitrary £7,400 earnings cap, which takes no account of household need or the number of children that parents need to provide for, will force people to negotiate down their working hours or leave work altogether just to make ends meet.”

The GMB is campaigning for FSM to be made available to all pupils.

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