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Stigma putting pupils off free school dinners

By Lisa Smyth

More than 20,000 children in Northern Ireland are missing out on their entitlement to free school meals — with many worried they could be teased for taking up the service.

It is estimated that 66,000 children in total are entitled to a free school meal — about 58,000 are registered as entitled to free school meals but Department of Education figures show 12,700 are not taking up the provision.

A further 8,000 children who could be entitled to a free school meal have not signed up for the service.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office report, which looked at nutritional standards in schools, blamed a fear of being teased as a reason for many children choosing not to take up the offer of a free school meal.

“A key barrier which is unique to inhibiting the uptake of free school meals is the fear of stigmatisation,” it said.

Pip Jaffa from the Parents’ Advice Centre said: “Children are very sensitive to the possibility of any kind of stigma and how they appear to their friends, and if there is anything that categorises them as different or being at a disadvantage they don’t want that.”

The report listed a number of suggestions which may help to tackle the issue, including the use of cashless systems so pupils in receipt of free school meals are treated the same as those paying.

However, Ms Jaffa said: “Children are very astute and are very quick at working out if someone appears to be different from them very quickly, even if the school takes every precaution.

“I think parents play an important role in teaching their children that regardless of a person’s circumstances we should be accepting of them. It is sad to think that some of these children who are entitled to a free school meal are not getting a hot meal at all.”

On menu

A pupil is entitled to free school meals where he/she or the parent is in receipt of income support or the parent receives the child tax credit and is ineligible for working tax credit, the parent receives the guarantee element of state pension credit or he/she has special educational needs and requires a special diet.

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