Postcode lottery on free school meals ‘must end’

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AN MP and former college chief from the region has made a passionate plea to Ministers to end the “long standing injustice” which sees more than 10,000 poor students in Yorkshire denied free school meals because they go to a further education colleges rather than a school.

Currently, students from deprived backgrounds between the ages of 16 to 18 receive free meals if they are studying at schools, academies or university technical colleges (UTC) but are not eligible if they are based at sixth form or FE colleges

Scunthorpe Labour MP Nic Dakin told the Commons yesterday that this left students facing a postcode lottery with those living in areas without any or with few school-based sixth forms missing out.

He also warned that students were being forced to skip meals in order to meet the costs of going to college and said the situation was “morally wrong”.

MPs were told that extending free food to cover all colleges would cost £38m nationally from a Department for Education budget of around £56 billion – the equivalent of an extra penny of spending for every £14 of the DfE’s overall budget.

Nationally it is believed there are more than 100,000 students in colleges who do not receive free school meals but who would had they chosen to go to a school sixth form or a UTC.

Mr Dakin, a former principal of John Leggott College in Scunthorpe, said the situation was more urgent now because the Government had cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and was extending the education participation age to 17 and then 18.

The EMA was a payment of up to £30 a week which was paid to students from deprived backgrounds.

The £560m fund was axed last year by the coalition and replaced with a £180m bursary scheme.

Mr Dakin said: “The existence of the Education Maintenance Allowance had masked the disadvantage but with the Education Maintenance Allowance gone the injustice is now even starker.

“And raising the participation age will mean that more young people from disadvantaged 
backgrounds will be going to college.”

He told MPs that 30 years of experience working with post 16-year-olds including four years as a college principal had shown him the importance of ensuring young people had access to a nutritious meal.

He said it helped improve students’ concentration, attendance, achievement which affect the qualifications young people go on to receive.

Currently around 13.3 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds in FE colleges or sixth forms would be eligible for free school meals if they were in schools.

This is a higher proportion than the 8.3 per cent of school students between the ages of 16 and 18 who receive free school meals.

Despite the high figure of pupils missing out, around 10,700 in the Yorkshire region and 103,000 across the country, Mr Dakin said that it would only take a tiny fraction of the DfE’s budget to ensure free school meals were extended to cover all deprived students between 16 and 18 who were staying in education.

He also warned that it was unfair that some colleges were currently helping to provide free school meals from their own budgets while schools did not have to meet these costs.

Mr Dakin raised the issue yesterday under the House of Commons Ten Minute Rule.

The Association of Colleges’ (AoC) No Free Lunch? campaign aims to end this disparity and earlier this year a Westminster Hall debate was held on the issue led by Sheffield Brightside 
and Hillsborough MP David Blunkett.

The AoC has also lodged a 
petition on the Number 10 website.

It says: “16-18 year olds from a 
disadvantaged background who study at a further education or sixth form college do not receive free meals at lunchtime whereas their counterparts in school sixth forms do.

“This is clearly unfair and needs to change. Eligibility for free meals should be based on need, not on where you choose to study.”

Speaking after the debate yesterday, Mr Dakin said: “I can only hope that raising this fundamental inequality in the House of Commons will help to end the disparity that leads to hundreds of thousands of students going hungry simply because of their education choices.

“It is an unfairness that sees students miss out on free meals for the sole reason that they have chosen to study at a college rather than a state-maintained sixth form.

“This disparity, coupled with the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance, is a block on social mobility and inherently unfair and I hope this debate in the House of Commons will draw further attention to the issue and make Government act to end this injustice.”

Young people in places like Barnsley are among the worst hit by the current postcode lottery as the main sixth form is the town’s further education college.

Barnsley College’s principal Colin Booth said the institution had around 900 students between the ages of 16 and 18 who were taking A-levels and a further 3,500 taking vocational courses – none of whom can receive free school meals.