Free School Meals (FSM) provide a vital resource for students and schools alike throughout the UK.
For students, the FSM scheme gives access to a healthy meal during the school day, supporting them to get the most out of their education. In fact, a free school meal can boost health and wellbeing, concentration and cognitive abilities, behaviour and socialisation, and academic outcomes.
And there’s a wealth of research to support this. A report carried out by the University College of London in 2006 revealed the provision of a healthy diet could increase achievement by up to 8% among Key Stage 2 children, and reduce absenteeism by roughly 15% across all age groups.
Yet for families on the lowest incomes, providing a healthy diet can be too costly. This makes the provision of Free School Meals (FSM) critical to a school’s ability to promote equal opportunities in education, and support disadvantaged pupils.
For schools, the government provides additional funding in the form of Pupil Premium for each student enrolled for FSM. This funding can be crucial to providing pupils with a rich and diverse education, enabling enrichment activities, educational trips and more - all of which can make a world of difference when it comes to improving student outcomes.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for schools to identify - and effectively engage - eligible children. In fact, as recently as last year, it’s been reported that 1 in 10 eligible pupils are not registered to receive free school meals. The question is, how does your school ensure you’re engaging every eligible pupil and ensure they receive their entitlement?
The use of data has emerged as a powerful tool in overcoming this challenge, allowing schools to better connect with families and ensure that every child receives the support they need. In this article, we take a closer look at how schools can identify pupils entitled to free school meals, and how they can support them to access their entitlement.
Understanding eligibility for free school meals can be tricky. To date, any child in a state-funded school is eligible for FSM if their parent or carer is receiving benefits (such as income support) or is on universal credit and their household income is less than £7,400 (after tax and excluding any benefit income).
On top of this, there is a Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) scheme, which means some primary school aged children are entitled to a free school meal, regardless of FSM eligibility.
However, which children are covered by this scheme varies depending upon where in the UK they are. For instance, in England it includes all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, while in Scotland, it’s all primary One to Three pupils. What’s more, there are plans to extend this cover to all primary years, and similar schemes are in place in Wales and Northern Ireland.
And the eligibility criteria doesn’t end there. For example, in some parts of the UK, students aged between 16 and 18 may also be able to claim free lunchtime meals. And while some parents on universal credit will be able to claim, those on working tax credits cannot. However, if someone is receiving working tax credit run-on (payments after their eligibility has ended), they will be eligible for FSM.
With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that keeping track of who is eligible for FSM can be tough for schools. In fact, many families aren’t always aware of what support they and their children are entitled to. So how do you overcome this?
To enable eligible pupils to access free school meals, their parents or carers first need to know that they are entitled to claim support.
It’s therefore vital that schools and trusts play their part when it comes to keeping parents informed of the eligibility criteria in as simplified a way as possible.
Many schools have information about FSM on their website, which is a great first step to take. However, if you’re not proactively reaching out to parents, it’s highly likely that you’re missing relevant people.
Try to make it as easy as possible for your schools’ families - it could be sending an email, or even a text message, with a hyperlink to the relevant page on your website. Key to doing this effectively is ensuring your data is up to date, and you have systems in place that enable you to track which pupils are currently accessing support, and the ones who you should be communicating with.
It’s also worth remembering that circumstances for families can change frequently, so it’s a good idea to communicate regularly to ensure no pupil or their family is missing out on support they need.
Another big issue with free school meals is the amount of allocated money and resources that is lost each year. In fact, in 2019, The Guardian reported that more than £65 million of money allocated for free school meals went unspent as a result of pupils not accessing their entitlement every day.
When pupils don’t access their entitlement on any given day, it’s not uncommon for those funds to be withdrawn entirely, with many catering systems simply writing off any unused allowance at the end of each day.
This means that if a meal is not claimed each and every day, children could be missing out on funds for food later down the line. This is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of free school meal provision.
It’s an unintended consequence of the system, but it’s also one that schools can rectify by utilising a catering system that tracks FSM allocations and carry any unused funds forward so that they can be used at a later date - ensuring no pupil misses out on support they are entitled to.
With the right financial management and point of sale software tools, schools can track payments and spending more effectively, which can help ensure pupils maximise this daily allowance and keep it where it belongs - in pupils’ meal accounts.
This is where Pebble’s financial management and point of sale software can help.
It’s not just about helping schools. It’s about supporting pupils, to ensure those who need to access free school meals aren’t missing out through unspent funds. Schools have a vital role to play in combating food insecurity, and we can provide the right tools to help them do this.
Using our Tali software, schools can create an automated, integrated financial management system that keeps track of payments and allowances, and helps them maximise the benefits of free school meals.
But we also know that effective financial management has to include point of sale too, where pupils interact financially on an individual level with a school’s systems.
The answer? Till.
Till enables your school catering system to roll over its unspent FSM allowances and keep every penny that a pupil hasn’t spent in their account.
Free school meals should support pupils who are disadvantaged, and, by extension, support their families too. The more schools can maximise FSM uptake, the more they are supporting the fight against food poverty.
For more details about our Tali and Till software, please contact the Pebble Team today.
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