Handling Free School Meals (FSM) can be complicated. They’re an essential resource for many but can cause issues for schools, parents and for pupils themselves.
For parents, the application process is demanding and varies from council to council. For some pupils, simply having free meals carries a stigma that can lead to many unclaimed meals in schools - creating another potential administrative headache.
In the past, a survey of school leaders revealed that complex administration of FSM led to many schools missing out on Pupil Premium funding, at a time when the number of children eligible for FSM was rising significantly.
Today, getting your administration right is more critical than ever before, with Pupil Premium rates increasing in a bid to combat the cost-of-living pressures schools face. So how do you ensure your school beats the eligibility challenge?
The eligibility criteria for FSM varies between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What’s more, over the past few years, the criteria has also been subject to much political - and societal - debate, which in turn has increased confusion over what rules apply to which areas (and when they’re applicable).
Generally speaking, in England, you’re eligible to claim FSM if you are receiving certain benefits, including income support, or are on Universal Credit and your household income is less than £7,400 (after tax and not including benefits).
There is some variation to these rules in Scotland and Northern Ireland, though eligibility still requires you to be in receipt of certain benefits. In Wales, rules are determined at local authority level and, depending upon which authority your postcode falls under, you could be entitled to receive FSM regardless of your circumstance.
Then there’s the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) scheme. This is a different scheme to FSM and was set up in 2014 by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who launched the plan at the Liberal Democrats conference in 2013. All children in reception, years 1 and 2 in state-funded schools in England are given £2.41 for a school meal regardless of their FSM eligibility. In Scotland, it’s all primary one to three pupils and in Wales, there are plans to provide all primary school aged children free school meals by 2024.
But while in theory eligibility might appear quite straightforward, the reality can be far more challenging.
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. But, someone receiving working tax credit run-on (payments after their eligibility has ended) will be eligible for FSM.
If it’s confusing for claimants, the system is also challenging for schools to administer.
Schools receive money back for each free school meal they provide. For reception, year 1 and 2 pupils, this should be relatively straightforward. They can ask parents of these children whether they want their child to have UIFSM. By keeping an accurate record of responses, schools should be able to plan for future school meals they will need to provide.
However, complications arise even at infant stage. Although all Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 pupils are legally eligible, some infants will also be eligible for FSM because their parents get certain benefits.
The school needs to register these pupils for FSM if it is to receive Pupil Premium funding for them. This is the extra funding available from the government to help schools improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.
Currently, this amounts to £1,455 per infant child and £1,035 per secondary child. If eligible parents of Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 pupils fail to register, then although their children will still receive free school meals, the school will be unable to claim the funding they would otherwise get.
The data for eligible Pupil Premium allocations comes from data collected in each annual census of schools and pupils. The amount a school receives in any given school year will depend on the number of eligible pupils registered for FSM that has been recorded in the most recent census.
So for a school to get the full allocation of funding that it’s due, it needs to encourage all FSM eligible parents to register in time for the census to record this.
The challenge is twofold:
With more families than ever before now eligible to receive FSM, getting it right can have a huge impact on a school’s funding.
In fact, according to GOV.UK, nearly a quarter (23.8%) of all students were eligible for free school meals in January 2023 - a rise of 122,000 since the same time the previous year.
The increase is more pronounced in some areas. For instance, in the North East, 30.4% of all pupils are now eligible for FSM, while this drops to 18.8% in the South East.
Schools need to address the critical issue of keeping their eligible pupil numbers up to date and encourage more eligible parents to enrol in the process. But how?
The answer lies in technology; a new tool which digitalises FSM applications and provides schools with the latest information about which pupils can have FSM.
Pebble’s Free School Meal Eligibility Checker registers all parents and carers using a link to a simple online form. Once the parent or carer has completed the form, they’re quickly notified about their entitlements, without the need for paper evidence or attending meetings in person. At the same time, the app reduces the administrative burden on schools by informing them of the pupils eligibility and helps prevent errors in providing free school meals and ensures all entitled pupil premium funding is claimed.
The Pebble system checks eligibility against a government database every few days, and should circumstances change and the parent becomes eligible to claim FSM, this transfers to their child automatically.
By removing the need for face-to-face meetings, the app also helps reduce the stigma surrounding FSM.
The same applies to Pebble’s Till platform. By preserving anonymity and streamlining the process, Till helps protect pupils from the stigma that can surround FSM in secondary schools. The system provides a cashless point of sale for school meals, where all pupils simply use a QR code regardless of FSM status
These are just some of the ways technology offers highly practical applications in schools and trusts. Dedicated apps offer immediate advantages to users, be they school administrators, catering staff, parents or pupils.
For more information about the Free School Meal Eligibility Checker or the Till catering payment platform, please talk to the Pebble team today.
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