Too proud to claim: 300,000 hard-up families don't take up free school meals due to stigma
By Mark Ellis in Mirror
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats
300,000 low income families fail to take up the benefit and teachers have seen rising numbers of children going hungry at school
The most detailed study of its kind has been launched to pinpoint hard-up families who are entitled to claim free school meals, but are too ashamed to take them.
The government has been forced to act as 300,000 low income families fail to take up the benefit and teachers have seen rising numbers of children going hungry at school.
Despite campaigns to encourage children from disadvantaged homes to take free school meals, huge numbers do not take them and researchers think the 'stigma' of being identified as claiming the benefit is mainly to blame.
Most schools operate swipe card or other cashless payment systems, which ensure children claiming free school meals are not identified and also help to reduce queues in school canteens.
Now David Laws, schools minister, says the Department for Education will publish research soon showing estimates of the numbers of pupils who are entitled to free school meals, but are not claiming them, with a breakdown by local authority, which will help target families in need.
He adds: "Identifying which children are entitled to free school meals can be difficult, and something we are seeking to address as part of our reforms to eligibility for free school meals from 2013.
"The Government are committed to increasing the take-up of free school meals for all pupils who are entitled to them.
"We want disadvantaged children to benefit from a nutritious meal, and for their schools to receive extra funding through the pupil premium in order to help them to raise the attainment of these pupils."
More than 1.1m children are entitled to free schools because their parents' are on Jobseekers allowance or working tax credits because their income is low, but 300,000 send their children to school with a packed lunch.
The average school meal price in England this year is £1.98. Prices across England range from around £1.50 to £2.30 in primary schools, £1.65 to £2.35 in secondary schools.
Schools benefit if pupils take up free school meals as they then get a pupil premium, to support youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, worth £600 a year for each child.
To encourage take up, the government has streamlined the application process with an online checking service that speeds up checks between different departments.
Jo Walker, Children's Food Advisor from the charity Children's Food Trust, which encourages children to take up free school meals, said: "At a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet we want to make sure every child who would qualify for free school meals is actually getting them, and this report will help.
"The more we know about the scale of the issue, the more we can help schools to reach those children.
"If your child isn't registered for the free school meals they're entitled to, they're missing out in all sorts of ways.
Having a decent lunch helps children do better in class in the afternoon. Free school meals take away the costs of having to make packed lunches or giving them money to buy lunch outside school - they're worth around £360 a year.
"And if your child's registered for free school meals, your school gets extra money to support them from the Pupil Premium."