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Revealed: Free School Meal students lose out on £65 million a year

Revealed: Free School Meal students lose out on £65 million a year

Tyne & Wear Citizens and Citizens UK published a pupil-led investigation by schools, revealing that pupils eligible for Free School Meals lose out on £65 million a year because unused allowance is retained by school meal provider.

In schools across the UK if the student on free school meals does not use their allowance by the end of the day – because they are absent from school, attending a lunchtime club or they don’t spend the full amount – their credit is deducted and retained by the school meals providers (private companies, schools and local authorities). [1] According to Citizens UK, this equates to around £65 million per year in secondary schools alone.

Citizens UK’s North East chapter (Tyne & Wear Citizens) has been working with pupils in several schools who first identified this as an issue, helping them challenge a shocking injustice in the way Free School Meals are delivered and building on research aimed at Poverty Proofing the School Day undertaken by charity Children North East.

Key Findings

  • Secondary school pupils lead national call for change as investigation finds £65 million of children’s Free School Meals allowance is being diverted;
  • Unspent ‘change’ from pupils’ meals isn’t rolled over for use on another day, but instead retained by the meal provider (private companies, schools or councils);
  • There are approximately 750,000 secondary school pupils eligible for free school meals and all are thought to be affected by this issue.

Luke Bramhall, Children North East, said: “This is a national issue. From Brighton to Middlesbrough, from Manchester to Scunthorpe, Children North East has spoken to over 65,000 pupils in more than 180 schools across England as part of 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' which identifies barriers to equality of experience in education. Across the country we are told about how the money allocated to children on free school meals is taken off them at the end of the day- and that children are going without as a result.”

The pupils today launched a national campaign for ‘Just Change’ for Free School Meals, releasing a YouTube video appeal and letter writing campaign, say that not having access their allowance makes them feel stigmatised and that if school caterers let them keep their change it would have a hugely positive impact on their ability to learn and participate in school life.

Year 8 pupil campaigning on this from Kenton School (which is campaigning for the system to be changed), said: “This campaign is important to us because it allows us to express how we [pupils on free school meals] are being treated differently to people who pay for their school meals. Some of our friends said that if they could keep the change they would buy extra food for the mornings for example, if they can’t get breakfast at home. But because they can’t keep the change they can never do that.”

Kath Wade, Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle and Just Change Action Team, Tyne & Wear Citizens, said: “It’s simply not right that this is happening. All it requires is a simple change to an IT system to ensure the change from lunch goes to those pupils who need it most. A hungry child can’t concentrate, a child that can’t concentrate can’t learn, and a child that can’t learn can’t reach their full potential. And isn’t that what we all want?”

First schools commit to changing system:

Since Tyne & Wear Citizens launched the Just Change campaign, two schools have changed their school meals system and returned change to pupils, and three schools have committed to the change.

Maura Regan, CEO of the Carmel Education College Trust, which has changed the free school meals system in three of its schools, said: “In truth we were blissfully ignorant of what was an unintended consequence [of the system]. Because of that, I felt there was a moral imperative to act. It appeared that we were supporting pupils on free school meals, but in reality, we were stifling them and creating difficulties. Once you become aware of something like that it has to become a catalyst for change.”

Ms Regan estimates that a simple, low cost change to her schools I.T system has given back around £17,000 to pupils. She continued: “the bottom line is quite simply that the money wasn’t ours… the money belongs to the children.”

Notes to Editors:

For media enquiries, interviews and images, please contact:

Emily Roe, Press Officer at Citizens UK
07581430557 / Citizens UK Press Office: 020 7043 9886 /

[1] See the full report for details on how private providers, local authorities or in some cases the schools themselves retain the money. More detail is available on the types of private providers operating school catering services on request.

About Citizens UK
Citizens UK organises communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good. The home of community organising in the UK and the Living Wage Foundation, we have over 450- member organisations in alliances in London, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Leicester, Birmingham, Wales, Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester. We develop the leadership capacity of our members to organise against social injustice affecting their communities.

About Tyne and Wear Citizens
Tyne & Wear Citizens is a broad alliance of civil society members including charities, faith groups, schools, Universities and community groups across Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland. Tyne and Wear Citizens’ is part of community alliance Citizens UK

Posted on 7 May, 2019