THE “NO RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS” CONDITION IS KEEPING THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN, WHO NEED FREE SCHOOL MEALS, HUNGRY IN SCHOOL
Last October, The Hackney Citizen ran a local story on a national scandal— the government’s denial of free school meals to children who need them, based on their or their parents’ immigration status. Richard Brown, headteacher at Urswick School in Hackney, told the paper he hadn’t realised how many children at his school were going hungry until he discovered it “almost by accident” when the school threw a party with free food to celebrate their new Ofsted rating. Brown was surprised to see “[crowds of children] coming to eat who I’d never seen in the canteen before. The cooks that day told me they’d never made so much food.” This was Brown’s awakening to the fact that free school meals are a ‘public fund’, and that it takes more than a low income to qualify for them. In fact, children only get the opportunity to apply for free school meals if their parents already receive certain benefits. This means that families who cannot access these benefits– because they have what is known as “no recourse to public funds” as a part of their immigration status– are left out from free school meal provision in England.
NRPF IS MASS PUNISHMENT
Many people in the UK are locked out of the support of almost all benefits because they have an immigration condition called no recourse to public funds (NRPF). This is either a condition that is put on a person’s visa, or a consequence of being undocumented. Many people with NRPF are on the path to settlement in the UK. Some may have lived here for many years; many have British children, or children who were born in the UK. Those who have visas are legally able to work and pay taxes, but when they are in need of help from the state they are denied the essential safety net of benefits. This particularly affects single parents and those unable to work due to factors such as age or mobility issues.
Punished simply for being poor and affected by the immigration system, families with NRPF who would otherwise be entitled to free school meals are faced with few options: go without, rely on (unreliable) donations; or be pushed into debt. School meal fees in London can cost anywhere between £36.42 and £84 per child per month.
FAMILIES LIVING IN POVERTY ARE ALSO DENIED HELP WITH SCHOOL TRIPS AND SCHOOL UNIFORMS BECAUSE OF THEIR IMMIGRATION STATUS
Pupil premium is the money that schools are paid by central government to cover extra school costs for disadvantaged children – like travel assistance to and from school, trips, and uniforms. The amount of pupil premium a school gets is calculated according to how many children in that school receive free school meals. The result is that destitute children whose parents have NRPF, and their schools, are excluded from this essential extra funding as well.
THIS DISCRIMINATION NEEDS TO CHANGE
For many of the students in Urswick School’s canteen, the party was a one-off entitlement to something their peers with access to mainstream benefits could get every day. Brown realised that 50% of his student population who were in need of free lunches were unable even to apply for them, and were “going hungry” as a result. This is the reality for thousands of children in England. It affects documented children (including the British children of migrant parents with NRPF) as well as the estimated 120,000 children who have no documents proving their or their parents’ ‘lawful’ immigration status in the UK. This needs to change, which is why we started a campaign demanding that the government i) provide free school meals to all children who need them and ii) give councils and schools the funds for this.
IN 2019, JOIN US IN HOLDING THE GOVERNMENT TO ACCOUNT
Schools’ money for free school meals is supposed to come from local authorities, whose funding is allocated by central government. In its most recent guidance on free school meals, the government highlighted ‘the benefits of providing a healthy school meal to the most disadvantaged pupils.’ The government also frequently states its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and ‘embedding children’s rights in government policy [to] strengthen services and improve outcomes for children.’ But Parliament has yet to implement any specific policy requiring (or equipping!) councils to fund free school meals for all children who need them, despite the UNCRC explicitly demanding that state parties ‘combat…malnutrition’ and ‘provide material assistance…particularly with regard to nutrition.’ Even those families deemed ‘in need’ by their local council under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and who receive “Section 17 support” — the only emergency support available to those who cannot access mainstream benefits — are not statutorily entitled to free school meals or inclusion in the pupil premium, despite their statutorily identified poverty.
If you want to change this, get in touch with your MP, and join our postcard campaign. Ask us to send you some postcards— if you write a message to the Department of Education on the back, we will deliver your card to them. If you are involved with an organisation interested in changing this policy, we have an infopack you can download for your organisation.
JOIN US IN GETTING SCHOOLS ON BOARD
Lack of state support leaves schools responsible for their own free school meal provision, and charged with an urgent duty to do right by children who need free school meals. Change is needed at policy level, but the efforts of schools who have rallied in the face of government indifference have met some students’ needs in the interim. Urswick School now rents out their car park and football pitch to raise funds that ensure all of their students are getting at least one meal a day during term-time. (You read that correctly: a government-funded school has to self-fund meals from private lettings just to make sure its students get to eat once a day.)
When it is unclear whose duty it is to pay for the lunches of children living in extreme poverty, there will be inconsistencies– and children left behind. We are currently seeing both local authorities and many schools saying that they cannot help with this cost, yet both have the power to use their budgetary discretion to ensure that children in their care have access to food.
This situation was made painfully clear when NELMA spoke with eight families in different London boroughs, all of whom are excluded from mainstream benefits due to having NRPF – and therefore, also from free school meals. All of them received different levels of support after approaching their children’s schools with the same need for assistance with school lunch costs. Four children were refused outright. One was given free school meals. One never received a response. For two families, younger children were given free school meals while their older siblings from the same household were denied. Schools might have the ability to even out these gaps, and they certainly have the ability to campaign for better resources for this basic provision.
NELMA are asking schools to acknowledge their role in light of the government’s lack of unifying guidance. We want schools to join us to ask for effective policy on a national level, so that all children who need them are able to access free school meals. The toolkit we have developed for schools is geared towards those working or learning in schools who would like to find out more and discuss these issues in school.
JOIN US IN HOLDING MPS, COUNCILLORS AND COUNCILS TO ACCOUNT
Things are changing slowly, starting with a local success in Hackney in the last two months of 2018. The borough’s mayor, Philip Glanville, declared his intention to help change free school meals policy “nationally”, and pledged to join us in pressuring central government to do this. In response to concerns raised by NELMA, Hackney Council began factoring school meal costs into their financial assessments for families with NRPF, including for families receiving interim support during assessments for Section 17 support. Where children receiving Section 17 support in Year 3 and above are not currently receiving free school meals, the council have now raised subsistence support to pay for school meals at a rate of £2.50 per child per day in primary schools and £3 in secondary schools. This is a tangible victory, but it is incomplete: it only benefits Hackney-resident children whose families have approached social services for Section 17 support, and it does not affect the many thousands of children, including those without documents, who do not receive Section 17 support or whose families are less likely to approach social services. Like Southwark Council’s provision of free school meals to children regardless of immigration status but on the condition that they are in a Southwark primary school, Hackney’s new policy adds to an unfinished picture of council support for children who need free school meals.
We are far from free school meals for all children who need them regardless of immigration status, but last year’s dialogue with Hackney demonstrates that individual councils can be held to account over their free school meal provision and can be willing to implement positive changes. Hackney’s example of policy change on a local level can be used to put public pressure on councils and central government to show their commitment to the needs of children, and better Hackney’s start. In 2019, NELMA pledges to hold Hackney’s mayor to his promises to secure free school meals for all children who need them that are living in Hackney or attending Hackney’s schools. And our pledge does not stop at Hackney; we will continue to campaign for the rights of those subject to NRPF and the other dehumanising and racist policies that make up the hostile environment.
If you live in Hackney, you can help by reminding Phillip Glanville of his pledge and demanding that the council widen their provision of free school meals to incorporate all children who need them. If you don’t live in Hackney, get in touch with your own local MP, councillor/s, and schools. Ask them how they will improve their free school meals provision. Demand that your council set public intentions to fund free school meals for all children who need them, regardless of immigration status. You can also help lobby central government by contributing to our postcard campaign.