Sharp hike in free school meals
The number of children eligible for school meals in Northern Ireland has shot up by almost 10,000 in the past year, figures have revealed.
Nearly one in every four children are now entitled to a lunch at school at no cost due to their family’s low income.
The huge hike in the number of extra school meals has been put down to the widening of the scheme which has made more families eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) as opposed to an increase in the number of ‘poor children’.
Usually, children whose parents earn less than £16,190 a year or are on benefits received FSM but newly released figures from the Department of Education have revealed that 73,314 pupils, across all sectors except special schools, were eligible for FSM.
This was an increase of 9,175 pupils on the previous year.
The primary sector showed the highest increase due largely to the extension of the eligibility criteria. Pupils in P4-7 were included for the first time when the start of this school year.
While 73,314 are eligible for FSM only about 57,000 take the meals, with some teachers fearing the stigma of poverty prevents some parents from claiming.
Education Minister John O’Dowd has this week told low-income families he was committed to ensuring that FSM would continue to be children in greatest need.
He gave the assurances after fears were voiced that some children may lose out under new Welfare Reform arrangements.
“Provision of free school meals has an important role to play in ensuring that children from low incomes receive a nutritional meal each day in school,” Mr O’Dowd said in the Irish News.
“I would appreciate that many families may be concerned about the forthcoming changes under Welfare Reform. However, I want to reassure those families that I am committed to ensuring the continued delivery of this important benefit to eligible children.”
Five of the ten existing FSM criteria hinge on whether families receive a welfare benefit or tax credit.
However, starting in October 2013 a new universal credit is being introduced on a four year transitional basis.
Mr O’Dowd said any new criteria would be subject to an Equality Impact Assessment and a period of consultation and said speculation and “scaremongering” at this stage, when nothing has yet been decided, was “unhelpful”.