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8,000 pupils are not claiming their free school meals

By Rebecca Black

More than 8,000 children who are entitled to free school meals do not claim them, it has emerged.

Concern has been expressed at the figure, which came to light after an Assembly question from the DUP's Gary Middleton.

Education Minister John O'Dowd revealed that some 37,236 children across Northern Ireland qualified for free school meals. But just 28,970 take them up.

The highest number of children who qualify for free school meals is in West Belfast (3,993), but only 2,996 claim them.

In North Belfast 3,702 children qualify for a free school meal, but just 2,682 claim them, while in the Foyle constituency 3,651 are entitled to free school meals while just 2,945 claim them.

South Antrim is the constituency where fewest children were entitled to free school meals (654). Of that number, 459 claim them.

Children qualify for the meals if their families receive a number of specific benefits, including Jobseeker's Allowance. Other qualifications include a household income of under £16,190, boarding at a special school or being an asylum seeker.

Clare-Anne Magee of Parenting NI said she was worried to hear so many were missing out.

"It's concerning to see children entitled to free school meals (FSM) missing out, particularly when so many families are struggling to make their food and financial budgets stretch," she said. "Parents in receipt of various Government financial supports can be entitled to FSM.

"Even working parents who are in receipt of tax credits/working families tax credits are entitled to FSM as long as their annual income is £16,190 or less."

Ms Magee said she believed it could be due to a combination of factors, including uncertainty over entitlement.

"The reasons why FSM aren't taken up can vary from family to family," she added.

"For some, they may feel that receiving FSM is a sign of poverty and don't want their children to be labelled or teased as a result, whilst for others it may be about an uncertainty over entitlement.

"We would like to see schools, the Education Authority and the Education Department do more to raise awareness among parents."

Belfast Telegraph


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