School meals dilemma

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PLANNED changes to the free school meals (FSM) system could put thousands of low-income families in Wigan off working, a charity says.

According to the latest figures released by Wigan Council, 7,323 youngsters were eligible for free school meals in Wigan Borough in 2011.

Some 80 per cent of those eligible took up the offer (6,100).

The meals are linked to low-income benefits that will merge into a single Universal Credit in 2013. The Children’s Society (CS) says if ministers tie eligibility to an income level, then parents may choose to work less to qualify for FSM.

However, the MP for Makerfield believes the free school meals are vital to low-income families.

Yvonne Fovargue said: “Free school meals provide vital financial support for many low-income families – for almost a third of children, school lunch is their main meal of the day.

“Evidence shows that eating a healthy meal at lunchtime improves children’s concentration and can have a positive impact on classroom behaviour.”

Children’s Minister Sarah Teather said the changes to the welfare system mean that there would have to be changes to the way free school meals were allocated.

The CS say eligibility for free school meals is important because it not only gives children access to free meals, but also to a range of other subsidies such as free uniforms and council discount cards.

It is also the basis on which schools are allocated extra funds to deal with the educational effects of disadvantage.

Ms Fovargue added: “The introduction of Universal Credit means that many of the current benefits used to assess who is entitled to free school meals will be scrapped. A completely new system of entitlement is set to be put into place in the next year.

“Unless the Government act now to reassure parents, then I fear that many families in the Borough will lose their entitlement to free school meals.”

“This will have a knock on effect to local schools who may see their funding cut as the new pupil premium is based on the numbers eligible for free school meals.”