Cllr Caroline ffiske is calling on Hammersmith and Fulham Council to introduce automatic registration for free school meals. She has asked for a report to be brought before the Children and Education Policy and Accountability Committee as soon as possible.
The proposal would give the Council the chance to do something practical to ensure fair funding for their schools. It was made in this report by a group of MPs and bishops about hunger.
It says under: Registration for free school meals
“The problems stemming from the under registration of children who are eligible for free school meals are twofold: first, each of these poor children risks going without a decent meal each day; second, their school misses out on up to £1,320 each year in Pupil Premium funding to support their education.
“Fortunately, we have encountered and encouraged a small but growing number of Local Authorities who are using their Housing Benefit records to identify such families whose children are eligible, but not registered to receive free school meals. Once identified, each family is informed by the Local Authority that their child has automatically been signed up to receive free school meals, with no need to fill in any forms unless they wish to opt out of entitlement.
“This innovative work delivers a win-win situation, at no extra cost to Local Authorities, in that children need not suffer hunger and their schools receive vital additional funding towards their education.”
Councils that have already implemented automatic registration for free school meals include Greenwich, Walsall and Hartlepool. But they are a small minority. When I challenged the Council to implement automatic registration for free school meals they took two months to reply and then came up with a weak and non-committal reference to “reviewing” the “link between information we currently hold and how we can use it”.
The Labour MP Frank Field wrote to me to say:
“It’s really encouraging to see the interest you’ve taken in this initiative.
My own local authority, Wirral Council, reported last week that this move has secured an additional £725,000 in Pupil Premium funding. Elsewhere, Calderdale Council automatically signed up 600 children and, in doing so, secured an additional £600,000 in Pupil Premium funding.
In implementing the policy, the Council essentially is sharing data with itself and, crucially, parents are offered an opt-out. The following steps would seem to represent good practice:
-A trawl of the Housing Benefit and Council Tax support database is completed, and families with children of school age are identified.
-Those eligible for free school meals are cross-referenced with the local management information system to identify families not currently in receipt of free school meals.
-Families who have not already done so are registered for free school meals, and the local authority contacts them to inform them of their entitlement; at the same time, the relevant schools are informed.
-Families are advised at this stage that they can opt-out of the scheme and waive their child’s entitlement. There is no need to make an application as they have already been registered.
-Any new application for Housing Benefit or Council Tax support is checked for potential free school meals eligibility and where there are children of school age in the family, the above process is carried out.”
Daphine Aikens, the Chief Executive of Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank says:
“It sounds like it would be really useful if this policy were adopted in H&F. We always see an increase in numbers during school holidays – as families struggle with the extra meals necessary. I would very much love to be able to host school holiday lunch clubs, but do not currently have the capacity.”
I hope the Council will get on with it, but it sounds as though there will be dithering. Even these modest changes do require political will to overcome administrative inertia.