National association points to failure to introduce automatic enrolment linked to tax and benefit records
The Department for Education (DfE) is under fire after refusing to use existing data in a shake-up of eligibility for free school meals, forced by the introduction of universal credit.
Ministers claimed to have solved the long-standing dilemma of where to draw the new threshold, hailing a decision that would deliver free lunches to 50,000 more children in England.
A switch to means testing would make any family eligible if it has an annual income, before benefit top-ups, of under £7,400, the DfE announced.
“This equates to approximately 50,000 additional pupils being eligible to receive a nutritious free school meal than currently,” said children’s minister Robert Goodwill.
But the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), while welcoming the announcement, also criticised a “missed opportunity”.
It said the Government had again failed to introduce automatic enrolment to free school meals using existing tax and benefit records – to ensure poorer children do not miss out.
Some MPs have long campaigned for auto-registration, warning that without it tens of thousands of youngsters fail to receive the free meals they are due.
In some areas, schools supply the names of parents, as well as their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which are then matched against lists of people receiving other income related benefits. It is then a simple process for the council to tell the school which pupils are eligible for free meals – and for those children not to be charged.
But a report two years ago, found that only 18 of more than 120 local education authorities across England could boast that every eligible pupil is receiving their free school meal. The weakness also leaves schools out-of-pocket, because they receive extra funding through the ‘pupil premium’ for every child judged eligible for the lunches.
Responding to the announcement, Paul Whiteman, the NAHT's general secretary, said: “The data already exists, it just needs to be shared with schools.
“Automatically registering children for the pupil premium would put a serious dent in social inequality. While we welcome this consultation, it sees a missed opportunity for a simpler system.”
Free school meals are received by children whose parents are on benefits such as the jobseeker's allowance or child tax credits, with household income below £16,000 a year. Those benefits will disappear when universal credit is introduced widely, merging a total of six benefits.
But a DfE spokesman added: “This will enable us to target more children from lower-earning families, so that they can benefit from nutritious, free meals.”
Earnings of £7,400 per annum would, after universal credit, deliver a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000, it said.
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