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Mayor’s free school meal plan for London children ‘could leave schools worse off’

Currently households in England receiving Universal Credit must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for free school meals (PA) (PA Wire)
Currently households in England receiving Universal Credit must earn below £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify for free school meals (PA) (PA Wire)

London primary schools will be left out of pocket due to Sadiq Khan’s “blanket” free school meals plan, the leader of a schools group has claimed.

Neil Miller, Deputy CEO of London South East Academies Trust, which runs nine schools in the capital, raised fears that schools will be left to pick up the “inevitable” shortfalls in funding for the scheme.

It comes after Mr Khan launched a £130million scheme to pay for every primary school child in London to receive free school meals next academic year.

Mr Miller said increasing numbers of London families are going hungry, and he is “hugely supportive” of expanding free school meals to more children. But he said this should instead be done by raising the current income threshold for families to qualify, rather than the Mayor’s “blanket primary school approach” which will see wealthier families benefiting from the scheme, and some secondary pupils missing out.

He warned that schools will be left with extra costs because they will need more staff, facilities and space to provide every child with a meal, adding: “We are all operating on incredibly tight budgets, given the dramatic increase in the cost of living, staff wages and energy prices. There will simply be no money left to meet the inevitable shortfall of the funding, with schools being left to subsidise every single meal.”

Currently children are prevented from getting free school meals if their families earn more than £7,400 a year, excluding benefits. But from September, because of the Mayor’s scheme, all London primary school children will receive the food. The policy does not extend outside the capital.

The Evening Standard’s School Hunger Special Investigation highlighted the plight of the 210,000 primary and secondary pupils in London who live in households on universal credit but missed out on free school meals because their household income was over this threshold.

Mr Miller said: “Raising the income threshold for free school meals to ensure more families qualify would support wider access to those who really need it. This is where I believe the focus should be, rather than a blanket primary school approach.”

He added: “What about the millions of young people in secondary schools who are also facing serious food poverty but are not included in these proposals? Whether they are six or 16, this should be about providing a meal for every child who needs one – rather than a universal primary school policy that ends up funding meals for children whose families can afford them.”

It will also make it harder for schools to claim pupil premium funding for students from lower income families, Mr Miller said.

Under current rules schools apply for the pupil premium for each student who is eligible for free meals, but if all students receive the meals it is feared it will be more difficult to know who is eligible.

Mr Miller said: “It is hugely encouraging that the food poverty plight of so many families and children across London is being recognised and acted on. We all have the same ambition to ensure that no child, of any age, is going hungry - so I would urge the Mayor to consult widely with schools and work with us to achieve this.”

A spokesman for Mr Khan said: “Sadiq is working with local authorities to roll out this unprecedented funding, explore any potential challenges around capacity and ensure that the scheme does not cause any school to miss out on the pupil premium. He continues to urge Government to ensure that this provision is made universal for all primary school children in the long-term and to do more to help low-income families.”