Nearly 500,000 children will lose their legal right to free school meals if one of the major provisions of the government’s education bill goes on the statute book.
The bill published yesterday, which is designed to save £220 millions, introduces the controversial assisted places scheme. It also intends to give parents greater say in the choice of their child’s school and permits local authorities the freedom to contract or even scrap their school meals services as an economy measure.
The only stipulation is that poor children should have access to free food at lunchtimes. But the qualifying levels set for free meals in the bill are supplementary benefit and family income supplement which are much lower than existing qualifying scales. Currently about 600,000 families receive such benefits but some 1.1 million children receive free school meals.
The nutritional value of the school meal is not being set either. So, if the bill is passed in its present form, it would be up to the local authority to decide to what extent they would feed poor children. This could range from a hot meal to a cash grant to be spent on snacks in local cafes.
The Child Poverty Action Group immediately condemned the move and warned that children would go hungry if it became law. Director Ruth Lister said that the free school meal was the only meal many poor children had all day.
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Education Secretary, Mr Mark Carlisle said he was relying on local authorities to be responsible in their provision for poor children. Not all parents who qualify for their children to have free school meals take them up, he said.
His reliance on local authority responsibility does not extend to arrangements for children bringing their own sandwiches to eat at school. Charges for allowing them to do this is expressly forbidden in the bill, despite earlier indication that Mr Carlisle did not want to legislate on this point.
Some schools had already proposed such charges. This will not help the current problems of midday meal supervision where thousands of teachers have opted out leaving heads as sole supervisors in some schools.
The free school meals provision is the only restriction in legislation designed to give a free hand to local authorities to save money without hurting education itself. Yesterday Mr Carlisle denied that this fetter had been introduced because some authorities were considering scrapping their entire meals services.
Under the bill local authorities would be able to charge for school transport but will be bound to provide it free or pay travelling expenses to children from families on supplementary benefit or family income supplement.
The meals, milk and transport clauses of the bill are the core of Government plans to cut education spending by £220 millions.
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