Replacement of means tested benefits will remove sources to check families’ eligibility to claim free meals for children
Ministers are running out of time to solve a data problem that threatens to deprive many children of free school meals to which they are entitled.
As plans stand, the introduction of Universal Credit – merging six working age benefits into a single payment – involves removing the sources of data that currently confirms whether children are eligible for free meals when their parents make an application.
It currently comes from records on means tested benefits, but these will not be available as Universal Credit is rolled out more widely over the next 18 months.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has highlighted the threat of families missing out in its Funding for Disadvantage Pupils report – which deals with the wider issue of funding to support children from poorer families – following an earlier report by the National Audit Office (NAO). It has said the Department for Education (DfE) should come up with a solution in the next six months before the merger of benefits under Universal Credit.
“The department does not yet know how it will identify disadvantaged pupils following Universal Credit’s introduction, and there is relatively little time to find an answer,” the PAC report says.
“The department should write to the committee, within six months, to update us on its plans to mitigate the risk that Universal Credit will make it harder to identify all genuinely disadvantaged pupils.”
In its evidence to the PAC’s enquiry, the DfE said that, along with the Department for Work and Pensions, it had to “agree and identify a new earnings threshold against which free school meals eligibility would be identified”.
But it insisted a solution would be found, telling the MPs: “How eligibility works in the future needs to be the government’s problem, not the problem of head teachers.”
An alternative approach includes the use of an auto-registration tool, made available by the DfE, which frees parents from having to fill in application forms for free school meals. It involves schools supplying the names of parents, with national insurance numbers and dates of birth, for matching against databases of people receiving other income-related benefits. This makes it possible to identify the children eligible for free school meals.
But this was not mentioned in the PAC report, and the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry on Hunger and Food Poverty, launched last year, has found that only 18 out of 120 local education authorities in England are ensuring that every eligible pupil receives free school meals. This has led to an estimate that more than 160,000 children from poor families are missing out.
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