Saffron Walden Labour Party has hit out at local MP Kemi Badenoch’s vote to slash free school meal eligibility, claiming that it will plunge hundreds of local school children into poverty when the plans come into force under benefit reforms.
From 1 April 2018, free school meal eligibility will only apply to children of those earning under £7,400 on top of the new universal credit. It will not affect those currently on free school meals where they are in the school system (eg primary or secondary school), but will impact on struggling local families in the future. Labour had pushed to maintain free school meals for children of those on universal credit, as is currently the case under transition arrangements, but was defeated in parliament.
Saffron Walden Labour Party schools spokesman Simon Trimnell, who is father to two local school children, said: “Saffron Walden constituency is always described as wealthy, but there are several pockets of poverty.
“The cost of living is very high and rising fast with food and housing costs growing faster than earnings. You need to earn a lot more than £7,400 on top of benefits to survive.
“Kemi Badenoch has voted to remove free school meals eligibility for hundreds of children in the future.
“Lots of children living in poverty will not have free school meals. Labour supports free school meals for all children, funded by tax on private school fees, to improve nutrition and education for all children.”
Research by Saffron Walden Labour Party finds that over 300 children in the constituency currently benefit from free school meals, based on Schools Guide data. Even under current arrangements for universal credit, many children living in poverty do not qualify for free school meals or their parents have not taken up the scheme. Poverty levels are a lot higher than free school meals take-up with over 3,000 children in poverty across the constituency in 2017, according to the End Child Poverty Coalition statistics.
Labour believes the worst affected area locally will be Stansted South ward, which has consistently had the highest rate of child poverty in the district, estimated at 26.2% in 2017, according to the End Child Poverty Coalition.
Free school meals are available to children whose parents are on income support, job seeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance and universal credit. Universal credit will soon replace all the other benefits.
Under the new system, once a family with one child passes the £7,400 mark, they would need to earn an extra £1,000 a year, working 2.4 hours more each week at the national living wage, to cover the cost, according to the Children’s Society which says a million children nationwide will lose out.
Schools also receive a ‘pupil premium’ worth £1,350 per primary school child and £935 per secondary pupil eligible under this scheme to tackle educational under-achievement among low income groups.
There are fears local schools’ pupil premium funding will be threatened with cuts in free school meals eligibility.
Based on data from the Saffron Walden Labour Party has identified the schools likely to see the biggest impact on removal of free school meals:
- Stansted’s Forest Hall School could see dozens of children from low income families potentially being made ineligible for free school meals. Nearly one in six children attending the school currently qualify for free school meals with data suggesting the school receives over £55,000 of funding under the pupil premium.
- Stansted St Mary’s primary school and Takeley’s primary school have relatively high free school meals ratios at 9.4%. According to Labour’s estimates, they receive at least £36,400 and £48,100 in FSM-based pupil premium, respectively.
- In Saffron Walden, Katherine Semar and St Marys schools have FSM ratios of 9.4% and 8.1%. Around 45 children in the town are currently eligible for free school meals.
- At Great Dunmow St Marys, 29 children (6.9% of the total) currently receive free school meals
- While most smaller settlements have very low levels of FSM eligibility, Thaxted Primary stands out with 7.2% of pupils currently receiving meals under the scheme. Thaxted also has a relatively high child poverty rate with one in five children living below the poverty line.
- Primary schools in the Chelmsford portion of the constituency will also lose out with the percentage of children currently qualifying averaging around 9.7%. Labour estimates over 90 children currently receive free school meals in these schools.