Ian Byrne MP: More than 100,000 eligible disabled children are unable to access the free school meals. The government must act.

'The families of children with disabilities and special educational needs  should not have had to fight this hard and for so long to receive what they are entitled to'

Free school meals

This week I led a debate on fair access to free school meals for disabled children and those with  special educational needs, which I applied for after meeting a constituent and learning of her  experiences as a parent and the unfairness in the current system. 

Thousands of children with special educational needs and disabilities are missing out on the free  school meals they are eligible for due to their disability or sensory needs. This is despite the law  being clear that most should be offered an alternative such as a supermarket food voucher. 

Disabled children and their families are already more likely to be living in poverty due to the  difficulties of juggling care and work. Research shows they have also been disproportionately affected  by cost-of-living pressures and the pandemic. Contact found that 85% of families missing out on the  free school meals entitlement reported that this has increased pressure on their weekly budgets. The  families of children with conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and autism are all too often missing out  on the equivalent of £570 a year worth of financial help. This is causing many to fall into debt and  needing to turn to foodbanks, which is completely unacceptable and unnecessary. 

Contact calculates that more than 164,000 disabled children are unable to access their free school  meals, despite meeting the Government’s eligibility requirements. This is truly shocking. Access to  food is a basic human right. I am campaigning for universal free school meals as part of the Right To  Food campaign but in the meantime we must ensure the current system is fair and equal and that it  actually delivers in practise what it claims to.  

My constituent’s story 

I met with my constituent along with a representative of the charity Contact to discuss why so many  disabled children are missing out on free meals and what can be done about it. My constituent’s son,  aged 15, is severely autistic and has Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Since the age of six, he has been at special school. He cannot eat the school food because of his highly restricted  diet. He mostly eats bread and butter, sometimes a bit of cheese and ham. For him, it’s about the  sight and texture of the food as well as the taste. This means that his mum has always made and paid  for his packed lunches, even though he has been eligible for free school meals throughout his school life. 

For so many families in this situation, it was only during lockdown that they received their free school  meals entitlement – in the form of supermarket vouchers. These vouchers were then cut off again  after schools reopened and the children affected were, once again, wrongly denied the free school  meals to which they are entitled. 

We know the support can be given, so it is absolutely inexcusable that 164,000 children are currently  not receiving their Free School Meals.

What the evidence tells us 

Research carried out by Contact in March 2023 with 1500 families found that there are different  reasons that disabled children cannot currently access their free lunch. These include: 

– 60% can’t eat school meals due to their health condition, dietary requirements or sensory  processing difficulties 

– 22% are off school due to a long-term medical condition or illness 

– 18% are not in school as they have an education package provided by the council or are  waiting for a suitable school place 

       – 6% attend a school without a canteen 

Many parents are incorrectly being refused a food voucher as a reasonable adjustment. Others are  being asked to travel miles to pick up a food parcel that doesn’t include food their child can eat. Families should never have to face this battle. 

What the law says 

Section 512 of the Education Act 1996 places a duty on maintained schools, academies and free  schools to provide Free School Meals to pupils of all ages who meet the criteria. These meals must be  provided to all eligible pupils either on the school premises or at any other place where education is  being provided. This could, for example, take the form of a supermarket voucher.  

Schools also have a duty under Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments  to the way in which free school lunches are delivered where the standard way of delivering them puts  a disabled pupil at a substantial disadvantage compared to other pupils. 

However, many schools are unaware of their responsibilities as the Government’s Free School Meals  guidance is silent on the school’s duty to make reasonable adjustments and fails to make reference to  the Equality Act 2010 altogether. This means that even when parents ask for an alternative provision,   schools are not complying with Equality Law. Parents are therefore put in a difficult position where  they are in conflict with the school and then face a battle to challenge the refusal. 

A very simple solution – but is the political will there? 

This week I have called on Government to take responsibility, update their free school meals  guidance, and provide any additional resource and support required by schools and local authorities  to make this happen immediately. It must be made clear that schools and councils need to provide an  alternative, ideally a supermarket voucher, to disabled children who cannot access a free school meal  in the regular way. I believe that by the Government addressing this issue and establishing  supermarket food vouchers as an alternative to free school meals as an acceptable reasonable  adjustment, it would give a workable solution to the situation so many find themselves in – as we saw  during lockdown. 

The Horizon Post Office scandal and cover-up has this week been brought to the fore of the public  consciousness via the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office and Government has announced an urgent response to this massive miscarriage of justice. Their measures are to be welcomed and it is remarkable to note how swiftly the Government can respond when the political will is there. 

As with the Horizon scandal, the families of children with disabilities and special educational needs  should not have had to fight this hard and for so long to receive what they are entitled to and I  sincerely hope that Government acts swiftly and decisively in response to this issue too.

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