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Free School Meals in Wales – A Policy in Need of Reform?

August 20th 2018

With consultation now open on the Welsh Government’s proposed changes to its free school meals policy, Steffan Evans questions whether the time is now right for a more radical change in approach?

The Welsh Government has recently opened consultation on changes that it is proposing to make to its free school meals policy.  At present, children whose families receive one of a series of means tested benefits, or, who receive money through Universal Credit are eligible to receive free school meals. With Universal Credit about to be fully rolled out across Wales, the Welsh Government is proposing a change to the system, limiting eligibility for families who are on Universal Credit to those whose net earned income is less than £7,400.

This consultation provides us in Wales with an opportunity to think about our free school meals policy differently, a policy that is not currently fulfilling its key aims.

Solving child poverty

The provision of free school meals is a key tool for solving child poverty in Wales. There is already a wealth of evidence that highlights how children’s academic attainment and their long-term health benefits from a nutritious and balanced diet. Evidence suggests that the diets of those living in poverty are not as nutritious as those on higher incomes. The provision of free school meals helps to tackle this inequality whilst also easing some of the financial pressures faced by parents on low income, reducing their risk of poverty.

Despite these clear benefits the policy currently in place in Wales falls well short of what is required to make a real difference to child poverty. According to the latest statistics, 28% of children in Wales live in relative income poverty after the deduction of housing costs, some 150,000 children. Whilst the Welsh Government do not breakdown child poverty statistics according to age, they do carry out an annual school census. According to the findings of the most recent census there were approximately 446,500 children in school in Wales, with a further 34,000 16 to 18-year olds enrolled on a full-time course at Further Education Colleges. This suggests that there are approximately 130,000 to 135,000 children in full time education in Wales who live in poverty. At present, only some 76,200 children are eligible for free school meals, with all of those who attend Further Education Colleges not covered by the policy.

Falling through the cracks

The Welsh Government’s policy proposals estimate that an extra 3,000 children would be entitled to free school meals. Even allowing for this, more than 40% of children who live in poverty in Wales will not be eligible for free school meals. That’s around 55,000 children in full time education, who are living in poverty, who will not be entitled to any support with the cost of their school meal. The Children Society have created a tool that allows you to see how many children, within your constituency live in poverty but will not be eligible for a free school meal.

This is not the only major weakness with the current system. Research suggests that thousands of children do not take advantage of their entitlement to free school meals due to the stigma attached to them or to their families. According to the information gathered by Welsh Government on school census day in 2017/18, 24% of children, eligible for a free school meal did not eat one. This means that on school census day 2017/18, less than half the children, who live in poverty and who are in full time education in Wales, actually received a free school meal.

Welsh Government statistics suggests that the take up of free school breakfast is even lower. All children who attend primary schools in Wales are entitled to a free school breakfast if their school provides one, or, can ask their school to start providing one. Information obtained through the school census suggests that only around 36% of children who are eligible for a free school meal receive at least one free school breakfast a week, slightly higher than the overall figure which stands at 31%. Recent media stories have highlighted how schools have developed very different approaches to allocating free school breakfasts. Some of the approaches adopted, such as allocation on a first come, first served basis, are likely to disadvantage those living in poverty. These issues suggest that there is a need for a more holistic review of the Welsh Government’s policy on ensuring that children are adequately fed and nourished than what is currently under consultation.

An opportunity for real change

This consultation provides the Welsh Government with an opportunity to think about its approach to solving child poverty more broadly. In Northern Ireland the cap for earned income has been set at £14,000, almost twice the level proposed in Wales. Whilst the caps being put in place in England and Scotland are similar to the rate proposed by the Welsh Government, free school meals are provided universally for school children who are in Year 2 or below in both nations. Could the Welsh Government use its new tax raising powers to go even further than this, to develop policy that ensures that no child in Wales goes without a healthy and nutritious school meal?

 

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