Schools lose out on funding through flaw in rules for subsidised lunches
Half of pupils from families in poverty are not getting a free lunch because the income threshold to qualify is set lower than the current level used to define poverty. It means that a family of two adults and two children struggling to get by on £18,000 a year has to pay for school dinners, which now cost on average £1.70 a day per child. Children at schools in every local authority in England are affected.
Parent campaigners said the government was letting down some of the most vulnerable "working poor" families.
Headteachers said some schools were losing out on funding as a result of free school meals being too blunt a predictor of deprivation. Schools receive extra money for teaching disadvantaged pupils based on the number on free school meals. The measure is also embedded in the school accountability system.
The "contextually value-added" league tables rank schools according to how well they do, taking into consideration the relative economic hardship of their intakes. The tables are based partly on free school meals, which means that some schools where lots of pupils miss out on free lunches could be wrongly rated.
David Laws, the Lib Dem education spokesman, who obtained the figures through a parliamentary question, said: "For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get. As times get tough, paying for school lunches is going to be a real struggle for more and more families."
Jackie Schneider, a parent and teacher who has campaigned about school dinners in south London, said: "The idea that you have children from homes on very tight budgets who don't get a free meal at school is despicable.
"You have to feed children to sustain them through the day. This system disadvantages the working poor."
The revelation, in a written answer seen by the Guardian, means that not only are around a million children slipping through the net, but also that their schools are being underfunded as a result.
Only children whose parents receive welfare payments or are below a £15,575 earnings threshold are eligible for free school meals. Other children whose parents earn just above that amount aren't entitled, the children's minister, Beverley Hughes, confirmed.
Labour has defined child poverty as any child living in a household with an income 60% below the average income before housing costs. That figure currently stands at around £18,000 for a two-parent home with two children, and around £14,000 for a single parent of two children. In 2006-07, the number of children living in poverty rose to 2.9 million - an increase of 100,000.
Kate Green, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: "That so few of those children [who] the government counts as poor are actually entitled to free school meals shows just how inadequate and mean the system is.
"Even of those entitled, the complexity and the stigma in the system means that one in five children who should get a free meal do not. For families in low-pay work, not having an entitlement to free school meals means that, too often, work does not pay and does not lift families out of poverty."
The government is piloting an expansion of free school meals in three areas of England. In two of the areas, all pupils will get free lunches, and in the third the proportion who qualify will be expanded. Scotland is introducing free meals for all in the first three years of primary school.
Hughes said: "We have invested to improve the quality of school meals, are taking action to increase uptake in deprived areas, and have already announced plans to trial extending free school meals to more low income families."
Source: The Guardian
Also see: Free School Meals Bill Blocked