Ulster Unionists urge Executive to provide young children free school meals

Roy Beggs MLA who earlier this week in a debate on free school meals urged that every child should be given a free school meal, has welcomed the decision of the Westminster Government to provide free school meals to primary school infants.  He has urged  the NI Executive to do likewise with the funding that will be made available locally.

Roy Beggs MLA, the Ulster Unionist Health Spokesman said, “A nutritional diet is vital for a child’s development and to improve concentration in the classroom. The current Free School Meals system is not fully taken up and 20,000 children were estimated by the NI Audit Office to be failing to taking up their entitlement. Fear of stigmatisation is thought to be a factor. The earnings limits also creates a cliff for the working poor. If a family earns a little more they can be worst off as they could lose free school meal entitlement.

I support the concept of free school meals for all as it overcomes both these issues. It will help struggling families and in pilots it has increased the up-date of health dinners from those children who will most benefit from it.
Ulster Unionists urge the NI Executive to use the additional funds that will be made available to provide a free school dinner for all primary school children in NI”

Earlier this week in the Assembly, Roy Beggs MLA said:
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School.

I am content with the wording of the motion but not with the limit to which it goes, so I will support the amendment. The issue is not only about maximising the current uptake but about extending it and ensuring that as many vulnerable young people as possible are assisted by it.

For some time, academics have recognised the importance of nutrition to a child’s development. Everyone accepts that, if too many sweets with E-numbers are consumed, a child becomes moody and difficult to settle in the classroom. Equally, if a child is hungry, he or she cannot concentrate. The provision of a nutritional diet is very important. It is also important that we talk about breakfast clubs because some young children come to school without breakfast, which is the most important meal of the day.

The issue of nutritional meals for children was raised in 2005 by Jamie Oliver’s campaign. Indeed, my dad was involved in that at Westminster. The campaign highlighted that, at that time, the money spent on a school meal was about one quarter of that spent on a prisoner’s meal. We must invest in our young people to ensure that they get quality food that will sustain them during the day and enable their development in school.

We must encourage the uptake of free school meals. I commend the work of the Western Education and Library Board, which has mounted a campaign to try to ensure a better uptake of this service and to support parents. However, I notice that, in the 2011 Northern Ireland Audit Office report, it is estimated that only 78% of those registered for free school meals take them. Some 22% of those who are clearly entitled to such meals do not take them, which amounts to 12,700 young people. The Audit Office also indicates that some 8,000 entitled pupils have not registered for free school meals. Therefore, some 20,000 young people do not take advantage of their entitlement.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. Given that eligible pupils are not taking up school meals and others have not applied for them, is that not a reason why the Department must understand what that money is used for in schools and where it goes in the system? Clearly, there is an issue of accountability.

Mr Beggs: I concur with the Member, and I am concerned that the young people who are entitled to nutritional meals are not getting them — never mind the funding implications of that.

On reading the Research and Information Service’s information pack, it struck me that there is a funding cliff that affects the working poor. There comes a point at which you are no longer entitled to free school meals for your children. Guess what? If you earn just a little bit more, you and your family are suddenly worse off. That should concern us all, particularly in view of the review of benefits. That cliff should not exist. No one should be worse off, whether through their benefits or the cumulative effect of their access to free school meals, as they gain employment and slowly, perhaps, increase their hours of employment.

The way in which we increase the uptake of free school meals among those who are entitled to them is important. There should be an aspiration that, at some point in the future, every child should simply be given a free school meal, and then there would be no stigma associated with it. There have been such pilots in England, and we should aspire to it. Perhaps, there could be free fruit for every child at school. That is doable and practical. We need to think outside the box; it is not a question of just more of the same. We need to remove the stigma to ensure that everyone has a nutritional diet and can progress.

To achieve an effective uptake campaign, the lessons seem to be to have a very simple application form, perhaps online, ensure that it is easily understood and, when people ultimately get their money, do everything that can be done to avoid any stigma being attached to it, where possible. The electronic card is one mechanism for doing that, but that is not viable in every case, particularly in smaller schools, because of the sheer cost of the system. However, we must do everything that we can to ensure that those who are entitled take up their entitlement. We should also look at how we can extend it to those who are worse off because they are working — I am talking about the working poor — and those who, perhaps, do not access free school meals because of family pride. We must ensure that children do not go hungry and that they have a nutritional diet to enable them to progress in school, academically and on the sports field.

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