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Free school meal uptake gives Richmond Council food for thought
More than a quarter of Richmond pupils eligible for free school lunches are failing to claim, costing schools money.
A report from the Department for Education (DoE) showed 28 per cent of those eligible in the borough were not taking up the offer - the highest percentage in London.
As a result, schools are missing out on at least £630,000 of the “pupil premium” funding set aside for poor pupils.
The fund is worth £900 for state secondary school students and £948 in primary schools, with the amount set to increase to £935 and £1,300 respectively in September.
Councillor Gareth Roberts, Liberal Democrat spokesman for education, said the figures were disappointing and accused to current Conservative-led administration of failing to get to grips with the issue.
He said: “We find ourselves top of the London league table and when compared with neighbouring boroughs, this is a stain on our reputation.
“We warned against this last year but the council has taken its eye off the ball and has not addressed the issue.
“There needs to be far more communication with parents about the benefits of it - just look at Kingston for example, they are getting on with it.”
In Kingston, just 200 pupils failed to claim for a free school meal, representing 7 per cent of those eligible, compared with Richmond’s 700.
In Hounslow, the figure was 18 per cent - 1,500 students.
Council cabinet member for education Councillor Paul Hodgins said: “It is an issue that we are aware of and we are trying to promote people taking it up and making sure they are aware.
“People have different reasons for not applying for it - maybe there are perception issues that come into it.
“It is a personal thing, all people have their different reasons but all efforts are going towards promoting it to those who are eligible for it.”
Karina Deade, 30, a teaching assistant and mother from Twickenham, whose daughter has free school meals, said: “I wasn’t sure if we were eligible straight away but I found out from school. They sent a letter out saying to check if you’re eligible and we were.
“She seems to be quite happy with them.”
The report showed Richmond to have 19,200 pupils in primary and secondary education.
Janet Foster, headteacher at Archdeacon Cambridge’s Church of England Primary School, said: “I think the reasons are various actually, people might just feel they don’t want to – maybe there’s still a stigma.
“We regularly inform parents about eligibility and the council have run several campaigns, they’ve reminded us to remind our parents.
“I can’t think what else the council could do to improve the take-up, because you can’t make people.
“Nobody knows if the children have free school meals – they all queue up together.”
We asked parents of Twickenham their thoughts on school meals:
Ashley Popple, 40, director and father from Twickenham: “We’ve actually looked into it and we weren’t eligible.
“My son Freddie quite likes his school dinners.
“Yes, I think it is value for money overall, but it depends what he eats, being so young.
“If people are eligible I think they should be told.”
Morgan Lobb, 42, managing director and father from Twickenham: “If parents are looking at the quality of the food and determining that maybe it’s not good enough then I can understand why they wouldn’t want to claim it.
“If lack of knowledge around the fact that they’re eligible, it might be a decision that they want to look into changing their mind on.
“There are a lot of things that could be done to make people aware of different options available to them.”
Lauren Pearce, 8, a pupil at the school who does not qualify for free school meals, from Twickenham: “I have them and they can be quite tasty – usually lasagne, maybe some pizza sometimes.
“A lot of my friends have school dinners but I don’t know if they’re free. We don’t talk about it.”
On whether she would tell her friends if she qualified for free school dinners: “Probably not, because otherwise they’ll start asking their parents if they can have free school dinners.”
Rebecca Pearce, 29, Lauren’s mother, said her family was in the right income bracket but did not qualify for free school meals: “My husband works, so they said we’re not entitled to it. It’s a bit frustrating to be honest, because although he works we still haven’t really got a lot of money to spare. But the kids need school dinners so we pay for it anyway.
“It should be based on income rather than whether parents work or not – working parents need that help and people who aren’t working need encouragement to go back to work. Things like that put them off going back to work.”
Justine Hamer, 40, mother whose son has school dinners sometimes (not free): “I know we’re not eligible. I knew from working in education, but I probably have received some information about it as well.
“It’s a shame that people aren’t claiming them – any support that people can get and that they’re not accessing is not good. There could be stigma, or they might not know the information, maybe they want them to have packed lunches. It could be a variety of reasons.
“If it’s a better nutritional value than you could provide in a lunch box, that’s the main reason people should have school dinners. If it’s a substantially better meal than you’re going to get, for free, and you need that help then it makes sense.”
Alison Brake, 42, an adult student and mother whose son has paid-for school dinners: “I don’t know if we’re eligible, but I assume not, because I assume it’s means-tested. We haven’t had any information from the school because I assumed we wouldn’t be anywhere near the criteria of eligibility. I have no idea what the criteria are.
“It seems crazy that people aren’t claiming them, so maybe people aren’t getting enough information about it. Maybe they should give the information out independently from the school, through the council.”
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