Almost two thirds of schoolchildren living in poverty in Hackney are not getting free school meals, stoking fears they are going hungry at school and falling behind in their studies.
Research published by the Children’s Society this week claims that as many as 16,600 children in Hackney could be going without a proper meal from the moment they leave home in the morning until they return in the evening.
“For some children, a free school lunch may be the only proper meal they get,” the charity said in its report – part of its Fair and Square campaign – which found that across the country 1.2 million children miss out on the meals.
At Betty Layward Primary School in Stoke Newington, around 70 of the 425 pupils are entitled to meals. A school official confirmed that parents had to apply to the Hackney Learning Trust to claim a free meal, under government criteria.
For some of the parents not entitled to a free school meal, providing for their children has become a struggle. Families pay £380 each year for meals at the school.
A mother whose son attends the school told the Hackney Post: “I was recently made redundant but we don’t qualify for school meals because my husband is working. It’s been a struggle.
“I know my friend is also having a tough time but her kids don’t get free school meals either. She recently had to choose which of the two she should send to after-school care because she couldn’t afford to send both.”
Researchers determined the numbers missing out by subtracting the number of children registered for free school meals from the number of children in poverty in Hackney, and found that 63 per cent of Hackney children living in poverty are not getting free school meals.
Hackney Learning Trust defended its meal provision and said it was already providing large numbers of children with a free school meal. A spokesperson said: “Based on current data, 35.1 per cent and 38.9 per cent of children on roll at Hackney-maintained schools claim free school meals in primary and secondary schools respectively.”
But Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Charity, said many children were missing out. He said: “It is shocking that huge numbers of children in poverty across London are missing out on a free school meal.
Under the current government criteria, children must have a single parent who works less than 16 hours per week (or 24 hours per week for couples), and earns less than £16,100 to qualify for the free meals. The charity argues this goes against the government’s ambition to “make work pay” and means that most children in poverty missing out on the meals are, in fact, from working families.
“Many low-income families are unable to get free school meals simply because their parents are working – no matter how little they earn,” the charity said.
With the link between improved school meals and better academic results already well-established – not least by chef Jamie Oliver’s ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign which significantly improved the grades of children in Greenwich – the Children’s Charity has urged the Government to provide free school meals to all children living in poverty.
Linda Cregan from the Children’s Food Trust said: “Very simply, when children eat better, they do better. In places where all children at primary school were offered free lunches, researchers found children made up to 2 months more progress than their peers in other areas.”
An overhaul of the current criteria for free school meals is due to take place in a little over a month, however it is not yet known who will be eligible under the new rules.
The Department of Education has so far rebuffed the proposal to give free school meals to the children of all those receiving universal credit, saying it would cost an estimated £1bn per year. The charity said this is an exaggeration and puts the cost closer to £500m. Besides, they have said, there is almost unanimous support for children in poverty to receive the meals.
Next door, Islington is among the constituencies that have chosen to extend free school meals beyond the Government’s criteria to all primary school children in the area.