Thanks to public outcry, campaigning, research and legal challenges, the Department for Education is having a much-needed internal review about the free school meals eligibility criteria. The review will decide which children are deserving of free school meals and its outcome will impact countless current and future schoolchildren. But the keyword to note is “internal” – the review has no public transparency built into it. The review is expected to be concluded before the Christmas holidays and we have little time left to influence it from the outside.
The review will consider Marcus Rashford and the National Food Strategy’s recommendation to extend free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit – not just those earning less than £7,400 a year after tax. Because of threatened legal action, the review will also have to consider the needs of children from migrant families with no recourse to public funds. These are families who cannot access the safety net of most benefits if they have a low income, lose work, cannot find work or are denied the right to work. Children from these families represent a generation growing up vulnerable to a level of poverty most cannot imagine existing in the UK. Overcrowded and insecure housing, hunger, and debt are sadly common experiences for many of the families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) that Hackney Migrant Centre advocates for.
It is no surprise that a means tested free school meals system leaves children in need behind. Means testing is designed to stop people from accessing support. It depends on processes and bureaucracy that alienate and exclude each step of the way. Parents with literacy, language or tech barriers will always struggle to access means tested free school meals, as well as those with the wrong immigration status and those deemed to be earning too much by a government that does not acknowledge the actual cost of living.
The estimated 215,000 undocumented children growing up in the UK are amongst the most financially vulnerable. Even if a means tested free school meals system includes them, getting this support will depend on their parents and carers disclosing their immigration status, which could place them at risk of detention and deportation.
Universal free school meals are the only way to ensure that the right to food at school is protected for every child. By prioritising the safety of the most vulnerable we could end up with a food system in schools that truly serves all children.
Those who say that universal free school meals are not worth the expense, hold that opinion from the comfort of knowing that their children will never have to worry about having enough to eat at school.
Equal access to education cannot exist without equal access to food. Food at school must be funded in a way that respects the fact that it is as integral to learning as teaching and equipment. Without universal free school meals, the children who need food the most are likely to be the ones who get the least.
Whilst the Department for Education shuts the public out of such important conversations, it is essential that we unite around a demand that guarantees the right to food at school for every child without exception – universal free school meals.
Nadia Chalabi is Hackney Migrant Centre’s school meals advocate and the author of Children with No Recourse to Public Funds: The need for free school meals