Give free school meals to all children from Universal Credit households, unions urge

Sangita Lal has spoken to single parent Naomi who's income means her daughter doesn't qualify for free meals, but is forced to survive on one meal a day to get by.

The chancellor and education secretary are being urged to extend free school meals so that all children from families receiving Universal Credit in England are covered.

Unions and organisations claiming to represent one million school staff asked Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi for an “urgent” expansion of the scheme amid the cost-of-living crisis.

They argue vulnerable children who do not receive free meals are facing a “real barrier to learning”.

“Every school day we see the benefits free school meals provide to those currently entitled. For many it is the only hot, nutritious meal they have in a day,” the letter to the MPs read.

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It continued: “A quality school meal helps improve children’s concentration and behaviour during lessons. We witness, first-hand, the effect they can have on improving school attendance, on children’s health, and academic performance.

“However, the intensifying cost-of-living crisis means many more are now struggling to afford school lunches… We see the devastating reality of children coming to school unable to afford to buy lunch, because their family circumstances means they fall outside the restrictive free school meal eligibility criteria.”

The letter added: “Now is the right moment for the government to commit to an expansion of free school meals, providing a nutritional safety net that supports all children to learn and achieve.”

Signatories to the letter included Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, and Dr Nicholas Capstick, chief executive of White Horse Federation Trust and chairman of the School Food Review Working Group.

The chancellor and education secretary have been urged to take action. Credit: PA

A government spokesman told the BBC: “We recognise that millions of households across the UK are struggling to make their incomes stretch to cover the rising cost of living, which is why, in addition to the over £22 billion announced previously, we are providing over £15 billion in further support, targeted particularly on those with the greatest need.

“The holiday activities and food programme runs during major school holidays, and wider welfare support is available through the household support fund, which helps vulnerable families in need with essentials, such as food and utility bills.”

Mr Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are very pleased to support the Food Foundation letter calling for free school meals to be offered to all children in families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

“It is vital in general that free school meal provision is extended to more children but particularly so at this time because of the cost-of-living crisis which is pushing many families deeper into poverty.

“About one in five pupils in England are currently eligible for free school meals but we know that a larger proportion of children are classified as living in poverty – about 30% – so a significant number of children in difficult circumstances are clearly missing out.

“Ensuring that all children who need this provision receive a free school meal is hugely important, not only in terms of health but also education as children who are hungry are not in a fit state to learn.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Expanding entitlement to free school meals would have significant benefits in terms of pupils’ health, wellbeing and educational attainment at a time when many families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to put food on the table.

“Teachers see the effects of hunger in the classroom every day and know first-hand how it inhibits children’s ability to concentrate, focus on their learning and make progress.”