The use of smart cards to claim free school meals is leading to the disappearance of more than £88 million a year meant to feed England’s poorest children, according to a study from Northumbria University.
Its researchers have pointed out the money is taken from the pupils’ accounts even if he or she is absent from school, misses lunch or does not use their full entitlement.
The Working paper on free school meals, authored by Professor Greta Defeyter and Professor Paul Stretesky of the university’s Healthy Living Lab, says the cash is allocated to the cards of secondary school pupils but – unlike in the case of youngsters who pay for meals – the daily allocation is wiped at the end of each day.
Based on a one day census of absenteeism, they have calculated the annual “disappeared” sum at £88.3 million and estimate big losses in some of England’s biggest cities with some of the country’s worst deprivation, including Birmingham (£3.1 million), Sheffield (£1.8 million), Manchester (£1.6 million) and Bradford (£1.4 million).
They say the real amount will be higher, because the figures exclude pupils who skipped lunch, or did not spend their full entitlement, and all infant school pupils, where free school meals are universal.
Demand for answer
Defeyter demanded to know what happens to the money.
“We were unable to calculate what proportion of the £88.3 million remains at the local authority level, with private school catering companies, with the school or is returned to the department for education,” she said.
“We potentially have a situation where the most disadvantaged in our society are subsidising the meals of those who are better off.”
Frank Field, the Labour MP and anti-poverty campaigner who published the study, called for an immediate investigation by the National Audit Office.
He said: “Having decided that these sums should be spent on improving the nutrition and life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a fresh audit is required from the Government to ensure this decision is being honoured in full.
“Once it has found out where the money goes, we then need ministers to require all unspent money to be recycled directly towards the feeding or schooling of those children who are currently losing out.”
The Department for Education allocates around £440 per year to local authorities, for every pupil eligible for free school meals. They cost about £2.20 per day.
The researchers chose 17 January 2017 for their census, finding that 222,955 (19.9%) of eligible pupils did not take a meal on that day – yet the value of the meal was claimed back.
Multiplying that figure by the £2.20 cost of a meal, and by the 180 days in a school year, produced the estimate of £88.3 million of meals claimed but not eaten.
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