Why are some pupils missing out on a free lunch?

Why are families in the South East, along with some others from across the country, ignoring the chance to increase their spending power by not taking up the free infant lunch programme on offer in schools? Many of the authorities with the lowest take up in the latest DfE statistics of census day are located in the South East. They include unitary authorities, such as Brighton & Hove, Slough, Reading, Medway and Milton Keynes and counties such as East Sussex and Oxfordshire. All these authorities had a take-up of less than 81% of pupils eating lunch on census day.

At the other end of the scale, Inner London averaged a nearly 91% take-up and Solihull managed to achieve just over 96% take-up. Now, I guess there may be some parents that regard the food on offer as not acceptable for culinary, cultural or dietary reasons, but it is difficult to see why so many parents in some authorities not only forgo an extra £400 or spending money, but presumably also shell out hard cash on creating meals for their children to eat instead. If they don’t think that the food on offer is good enough then they should be lobbying the governing body or MAT trustees for an improvement.

Now, I am sure some of the difference could be a result of how important the local authority still sees its role in education and thus in encouraging schools to provide meals that are attractive and nutritional. This may be less of a concern in areas with lots of academies and free schools.

It could also be that some of these families have children in schools where more emphasis is placed on the breakfast club than on lunch to ensure a healthy start to the day. Of course, locally high incidences of sickness in specific schools may also have played a part in an authority’s position in the rankings. However, it does seem that the further north you travel in England, the higher the take-up was, with London, and specifically the inner London boroughs, being the main exception to this rule of thumb analysis.

The should be sufficient data now available to identify whether pupils in schools with low take-up fare any differently at the end of Key State 1 than pupils in schools where take-up is much higher once  researchers have standardised for all other possible variables; a tough ask.

I guess, with the present funding problems facing schools, there won’t be any real pressure from government for a scheme to extend the free lunch arrangements to Key Stage 2 pupils and, no doubt, some politicians may see the whole exercise as an ineffective use of money, forgetting the benefits to both parents and children achieved by the was the scheme is resourced. The initiative to roll out the scheme for Key Stage 1 pupils was a Coalition government action with some parts of the Labour strongly supporting and other being either lukewarm or downright hostile to the idea.

 

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Food for thought

Last Friday the DfE published its annual census data on schools. This deals with the number of schools and also provides details about the number of pupils. The headlines, larger classes and larger schools, were well covered by the media. The increases in pupil numbers were not unexpected, although the increase in average class size at KS2, while average class sizes at KS1 remained the same, might not have been predicted by everyone.

Average class sizes in the primary sector are now larger than a decade ago, but remain 1.4 pupils per teacher smaller than in 2006 across the secondary sector as a whole. Average class sizes in the primary sector are at their smallest in parts of the North East, where the growth in pupil numbers hasn’t really happened yet and largest in parts of outer London where they are approaching 30 pupils per teacher in both Sutton and Harrow at 29.6:1. Several other London boroughs have average class sizes of over 29 pupils per teacher.

However, one table that interested me and hasn’t been widely reported on was the take-up of school meals. This was the first year of the free school meals for infant pupils. At the census, the average take-up of school lunches by infant pupils was 85.6%. However, since pupils absent on the day are included in the overall total, the actual take up by pupils present in school was presumably somewhat higher than that in schools where some pupils were absent. Redcar in the North East had the highest take-up at 94.5% of it infant school population if you exclude the 100% in the City of London’s one primary school. Not far behind were a group of six London boroughs that included Kingston and Islington. At the other end of the table were Brighton and Hove, at just 70.5% take-up and Oxfordshire with the second lowest figure of 77.4% take-up. These authorities were followed closely by Thurrock, Medway and Hillingdon. The south east had the lowest take-up of any region at just over 81% whereas Inner London averaged over 90% take-up, closely followed by the North East region.

It is difficult to know what to read into these figures on take-up. Are families in affluent areas happy to ignore the free meals on offer or were these authorities where the meals service had collapsed after the assault on provision during the Thatcher years? The former clearly doesn’t work everywhere as a reason, otherwise places like Kingston upon Thames would not be so close to the top of the list. Perhaps, parents in these areas understand the value of the £400 of saving taking up the free meal deal can provide, especially when the alternative is spending income taxed at 40%.

It isn’t a rural urban divide either, so may be some other factor is at work. As a councillor in Oxfordshire I will be asking questions about why the take-up is so low locally? But, the Tory cabinet member was always opposed to the free school meals policy, so that may have had some effect.