The Committee considered the report of the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services that provided Members with information relating to eligibility and take up of free school meals in County Durham. The report also provided information on the steps taken to encourage families to apply for free school meals, what the impact on schools where families don’t apply for free school meals in relation to pupil premium and what support was given to families who were claiming free school meals when their children were not in school such as during school holidays or periods of absence (for copy of report, see file of minutes).
The Health and Wellbeing Lead and Head of Education and Skills were in attendance to present the report and advised Members that the National School Census 2021 indicated that 20.8% of pupils were eligible for free school meals. The most recent data October 2021 indicated that 29.6% of pupils in Durham were eligible for free school meals compared to the national figure for eligibility for free school meals which was around 21%.
The Department for Education for Spring/Summer 2021 indicated that 27.4% (20,316) of pupils aged 4-18 were eligible for free school meals. In County Durham 76% of eligible children took a free school meal. Nationally and regionally this figure was 82%, these figures matched the take up of food vouchers.
Members were advised there were a variety of reasons why a child may not take a free school meal, this could be down to food preference, preferring packed lunches opposed to school lunches, some children did not like to queue, and although most schools kept children on the premises during the lunch period some were still allowed out and young people wanted to go out with their peers. Sometimes there were cultural issues or peer issues that prevented a child not claiming a free school meal.
Schools were proactive in encouraging children to take a school meal, especially in secondary schools where provision was extended to include mid-morning snacks. Schools also encourage families to come into school and see the provision they have. They worked hard to minimise barriers and perceived stigma and use Durham County Council’s checking system that works to check to see if a family is eligible without the need for detailed financial information. Both schools and Durham County Council’s eligibility team worked hard to encourage families to make a claim.
Councillor Gunn reminded the committee of review activity which this committee had carried out looking at the take up of free school meals, focusing on reducing stigma on accessing free school meals. She asked if voluntary organisations were being provided with information as they often worked with eligible families to ensure more take up of free school meals and suggested that Youth Council should be contacted to contribute around stigmatisation. She then referred to school staff who had been under pressure due to COVID and the work they had carried out to ensure families had free school meals and she wished to convey her thanks to all school staff for all their amazing work.
The Health and Wellbeing Lead responded that they did provide information to the voluntary sector, but this was something that they could explore further. They worked closely with the welfare assistance team who work with various agencies across County Durham. She echoed Councillor Gunn’s comments that colleagues in schools had worked extremely hard, including those staff within school kitchens and staff delivering food parcels to families during the pandemic.
Councillor Walton asked if there were any common barriers to the take up of free school meals county wide and if there were any schools that had overcome these barriers and was this information shared with other schools.
The Health and Wellbeing Lead responded that barriers were mostly seen particularly in secondary schools, where young people mirror their peers so would often not take a free school meal.
The Head of Education and Skills indicated that the biometrics system works to a certain extent, but the issue was that pupils could work out who were on free school meals by the type of foods they were choosing, their allowance and the extra cash they were adding to the system, so it was not a fool proof system. The take up across some secondary schools in some areas were up to 65% but in others were as little as 15%.
In response to a question from Councillor Walton, the Head of Education and Skills indicated that the biggest barrier to free school meals was peer pressure. Nationally there was a drop off in free school meals when the children were between 10 and 15 years old with 10% at age 10 and 25% at age 15.
The Health and Wellbeing Lead commented that at primary level the biggest barrier was often food preference of children. Schools were bound by the school food standards and usually served traditional menus and schools weren’t able to provide chips every day, but they had a better uptake of free school meals on fish and chip Fridays. It was a challenge, but they were working on it.
Councillor Hunt asked if there was an option to provide a packed lunch, in particular in the summer months when peers were on packed lunches.
The Health and Wellbeing Lead responded that primary schools had two menu changes throughout the year. In the winter they provided traditional hot meals, in the summer they did see a drop off in the number of children taking a meal as they wanted to be outside. Many schools did provide a deli style lunch that could include sandwiches, but this was not available in every school as it was dependent on the school kitchen, specifically size and facilities and what they could provide. They worked with schools on an individual basis to see what the best options for them was.
Councillor Crute referred to the previous review activity on the take up of free school meals and that one of the findings was the perceived stigma of free school meals. He highlighted that during the review it was found that till screens showed the amount of money the young person had to spend, which would be the daily amount for a free school meal and that would inadvertently identify the pupil in receipt of free school meals. He suggested as the percentage of the take up of free school meals was static and that the previous review was undertaken some time ago that members of the committee may want to review the progress made and to address some of the issues raised this morning.
The Head of Education and Skills indicated that the biometrics system should not flash anything to indicate a free school meal. The issue was that children made their decisions within their limitations and pupils could work out who was in receipt of free school meals. It was a mixed economy and 82% of secondary schools where academies so were not influencing all the menus of schools but the take up figures compared to the national figure needed to be explored more. He would ask Secondary Heads to pull together some information on the take up of free school meals over the course of a week rather than one day and get some realistic comparisons.
Councillor Crute responded that if it was easy to identify those children on free school meals by their choices and maybe the only way around this was to increase the allowance.
The Chair agreed that the take up of free school meals would be noted for the work programme.
Resolved: That the contents of the report be noted.