Government proposals to introduce a new earnings limit from 1 April 2018 will mean that any family on Universal Credit earning more than £7,400 a year will not be eligible for free school meals.
The Department of Education has made clear that no-one who currently receives free school meals as part of the early rollout of Universal Credit will lose their entitlement once the rollout is complete.
Hackney Council’s Deputy Mayor, Antoinette Bramble, said: “Almost 30% of Hackney school pupils are eligible for free schools meals, which is twice the national average. In the short term, children who are currently eligible for free school meals will remain eligible for several years until universal credit is rolled out nationally.
“I am very concerned about the estimate that, when the changes come into effect, 4,000 children could miss out. As changes to benefits and rising living costs continue to hit the poorest the hardest, taking a nutritious hot meal away from the children who need it the most seems particularly unfair.”
The Children’s Society works with the country’s most vulnerable children and young people, as well as working with policymakers on key issues. They estimated the figures by focusing only on children in Year 3 and above, as all infant children receive a free lunch under the universal infant offer.
A local parent has told The Hackney Post that the changes will come as a “nasty shock” to many families in the borough.
Jo Macleod, who runs ‘Hackney Parent’ – a community campaign that promotes and recommends free activities for families within the borough – expressed her personal opinion on the proposed changes.
Informed by her experience as Vice Chair of Hackney School Governors’ Association, she said: “The estimate [of 4000 schoolchildren missing out on free school meals] seems entirely reasonable to me. The £7,400 threshold is ridiculously stringent, especially for a government that claims to be trying to encourage parents to work – it seems completely counter-productive.
“I have two children in primary school and know families who will be affected. I think there’s a low parental awareness of the changes and it will come as a nasty shock to many – it’s difficult anyway for parents to understand what their entitlements are.
“Pupil premium helps schools claim a higher level of funding, giving them a fairly significant extra amount of money to help them put in place additional things like extra activities and music lessons. It’s not just for meal provisions.”
The charity created an online postcode tool for each region, comparing the estimated number of pupils that are expected to receive free school meals with the estimated number of pupils who live in poverty.
A spokesperson for The Children’s Society said: “For children from poorer families, the guarantee of a decent lunch every day can make a huge difference.
“This is a huge step backwards. It also fundamentally undermines one of the main reasons for introducing Universal Credit in the first place: to ensure that ‘work always pays’.”
It uses official Department for Work and Pensions statistics to figure out the households below average income, and applies regional poverty percentages to each local authority’s schools roll numbers from the Department of Education.