Free school meals (FSM) are complicated. They’re an essential resource for many but can cause issues for schools, parents and for pupils themselves.
Recently, a National Association of Head Teachers survey highlighted that many schools are missing out on Pupil Premium funding due to changes in eligibility dates. At the same time, the number of children on FSM is rising significantly.
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. This is another potential administrative headache.
Who is eligible for free school meals?
Any child in a state-funded school is eligible for FSM if their parent or carer is:
Some children are automatically eligible for Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM). 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 £2.30 for a school meal regardless of their FSM eligibility. In Scotland, it’s all primary one to three pupils and plans are afoot to extend this to cover all primary years with similar schemes in place for Wales and Northern Ireland.
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.
How do schools manage FSM?
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 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 £1,345 per infant child and £955 per secondary child. If eligible parents of reception, year 1 and 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 school census pitfall
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:
The recent date change for the school census has had an impact on the ability of some schools to claim their funding.
The Department of Education announced that the October 2020 census would provide the data for Pupil Premium allocation, rather than in January 2021. But schools have pointed out that between these dates, there have been significant increases in the numbers of pupils claiming FSM.
Between January 2020 and January 2021, the number of pupils claiming FSM rose from 1.44 million to 1.74 million, an increase of nearly 21%. But 100,000 of these new eligible claimants came between October 2020 and January 2021, and therefore are not recorded on the census.
This will leave some schools out of pocket until 2022.
You might not expect three months to make such a significant impact, but the pandemic has put additional financial pressures on schools and on families.
Eligibility varies from area to area, but in some, such as Manchester, it rose in the 10 months between January and October 2020 to 36%. Conditions didn't improve from October onwards and for many families, they will have got a whole lot worse.
Keeping up to date with eligibility
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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