Education Minister, John O’Dowd, has called on all families entitled to free school meals to take up their entitlement.
The Minister was speaking during a debate on free school meal uptake in the Assembly. During the debate he revealed that almost one in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not avail of them.
Speaking after the debate, the Minister said: “The significance of free school meals must be seen in the context of my Department’s overarching goals – ‘to raise standards’ and ‘close the performance gap, increase access and equality’.
“Free school meals support the Programme for Government commitment to tackle disadvantage and close the gap in educational attainment between the least and most deprived communities.
“The particular challenges faced by pupils from lower income backgrounds in accessing, participating in and benefiting from, formal education are well documented and we should not underestimate the impact this can have on children’s learning and development, on their educational attainment and ultimately on their lifetime opportunities.”
In 2011/12 34.1% of young people who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, compared to 67.9% of those not entitled to free school meals.
The Minister continued: “Whilst there have been continued improvements in performance over recent years, there still remains too large a gap between pupils from socially disadvantaged areas and those from more affluent areas.
“It is right and fitting therefore that my Department has a particular focus on ensuring children and young people from low income and deprived backgrounds and those at risk of social exclusion receive the support they need to achieve their full potential.
“That is why I am extending the Working Tax Credit eligibility criteria from September 2014. This means that children at post-primary school will be eligible for free school meals in the same way as those at primary or nursery, enabling an additional 15,000 pupils from low income households to benefit from free school meals and the school uniform grant as a direct result.
“In addition, I have extended free school meal provision to the independent sector from the 2013/14 year as it is important that eligible children from low income households should receive free school meals regardless of whether they attend a grant-aided school or an independent school.”
In conclusion the Minister highlighted the benefits of free school meals and called on those deemed eligible to apply. He said: “We must not underestimate the important contribution which a healthy, nutritionally balanced school meal can make to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, to learning and cognitive development and, in turn, to academic performance. Too many families are not accessing the support they are entitled to, I therefore urge parents who think they might be eligible to contact their Education and Library Board for advice.”
Notes to editors:
1. In 2012/13 almost 80,000 pupils were entitled to receive free school meals and approximately 78,000 were entitled to receive the uniform grant – an increase since 2007/08 of almost 24,000 and 53,000 respectively.
2.Further information can be found at http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/nutrition-and-school-lunches.htm
3. The Department of Education’s ‘Education Works’ campaign encourages families to play, talk, read and count with their child and to ‘Get Involved Because Education Works’. The campaign highlights the vital role families can play in helping children do well at school and improve their life chances. Visit http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/education-works for more information.
Watch the TV ad on the Department’s YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/thedeptofeducation
4. See photos from the Department of Education in our collection at http://www.flickr.com/niexecutive