Sunday 17 December 2017 01:50:26 PM

Families Encouraged To Avail Of Free School Meals
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EDUCATION Minister  John O’Dowd has called on all families entitled to free school meals to take up their entitlement.

His calls have been supported by South Down MLA’s Chris Hazzard and Seán Rogers.

The Minister was speaking during a debate on free school meal uptake in the Assembly. During the debate he revealed that almost one in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not avail of them.

Speaking after the debate, the Minister said: “The significance of free school meals must be seen in the context of my Department’s overarching goals which are ‘to raise standards’ and ‘close the performance gap, increase access and equality’.

Free school meals - a vigorous debate took place at Stormont.

Free school meals – a vigorous debate took place at Stormont.

“Free school meals support the Programme for Government commitment to tackle disadvantage and close the gap in educational attainment between the least and most deprived communities.

“The particular challenges faced by pupils from lower income backgrounds in accessing, participating in and benefiting from, formal education are well documented and we should not underestimate the impact this can have on children’s learning and development, on their educational attainment and ultimately on their lifetime opportunities.”

In 2011/12, 34.1% of young people who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, compared to 67.9% of those not entitled to free school meals.

In 2012/13 almost 80,000 pupils were entitled to receive free school meals and approximately 78,000 were entitled to receive the uniform grant – an increase since 2007/08 of almost 24,000 and 53,000 respectively.

The Minister added: “Whilst there have been continued improvements in performance over recent years, there still remains too large a gap between pupils from socially disadvantaged areas and those from more affluent areas.

“It is right and fitting therefore that my Department has a particular focus on ensuring children and young people from low income and deprived backgrounds and those at risk of social exclusion receive the support they need to achieve their full potential.

“That is why I am extending the Working Tax Credit eligibility criteria from September 2014. This means that children at post-primary school will be eligible for free school meals in the same way as those at primary or nursery, enabling an additional 15,000 pupils from low income households to benefit from free school meals and the school uniform grant as a direct result.

“In addition, I have extended free school meal provision to the independent sector from the 2013/14 year as it is important that eligible children from low income households should receive free school meals regardless of whether they attend a grant-aided school or an independent school.”

The Minister also highlighted the benefits of free school meals and called on those deemed eligible to apply. He said: “We must not underestimate the important contribution which a healthy, nutritionally balanced school meal can make to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, to learning and cognitive development and, in turn, to academic performance. Too many families are not accessing the support they are entitled to, I therefore urge parents who think they might be eligible to contact their Education and Library Board for advice.”

Call For Extension Of  School Meals From Hazzard

SINN Féin Education spokesperson Chris Hazzard has called for free school meals to be extended for all children attending school. Speaking in the Assembly Mr. Hazzard said:  “In recent years Sinn Féin has worked to increase the number of children entitled to free school meals and indeed the Minister John O’Dowd recently announced that the criteria for attaining free school meals would be standardised across primary and post primary schools.

“This would mean that children entitled to free school meals in primary would carry that entitlement into post-primary school.

“Many children were going to school without a proper lunch due to families being unable to either supply a packed lunch or pay for school meals.  It is important that children are able to have a healthy meal during their time at school.

“While welcoming the Minister’s commitment to date on the issue, I am asking him to investigate extending the free school meal system to all children attending school.  This would bring equality to the system and ensure that every child would get at least one substantial meal during term time.”

Rogers Says Free School Meal Uptake Must Be Maximised  

SDLP Education spokesperson Seán Rogers said that the Department of Education must recognise the challenges being faced by working families when it considers ways of increasing the uptake of free school meals.

Speaking after the Assembly debate on the issue, Mr Rogers said: “It is vitally important that we recognise the need to improve our children’s nutrition, particularly in light of the increased financial pressure on working families. If our children are to achieve their full potential during the school day they must be fuelled with nutritious food.

“Research suggests there is a strong link between a healthy diet and a child’s behaviour, and performance in school.  Healthy school meals play an important role in helping to raise educational achievement. They are also a great help in removing barriers to learning for children from lower income backgrounds.

“In recent years many families have fallen into the poverty trap…  they hold down jobs, they work hard and yet they struggle to meet many of their bills. The working poor make a tremendous contribution to our society and deserve to be supported, in this case when it comes to their children.

“Many hard working families on relatively low income give their children packed lunches because they don’t qualify for free school meals and the cost of a school dinner is often prohibitive.

“We need to support people who want to work and who greatly enhance our society by the contribution they make in the workplace. Losing a free school meal entitlement could make the difference of whether people return to work or not. I believe that we should aim to have free school meals for all Key stage one pupils.

“There also needs to be a collaborative approach between schools and the home to improve diets, promote healthy eating both for parents especially mothers and their children.

“I was keen to put forward today an amendment to the motion which reflected the need to focus on nutrition and to recognise the challenges being faced by working families in the current economic climate.”