England’s former Children’s Commissioner has called for free school meals to be extended to all Universal Credit families, while acknowledging that poverty has not been tackled “good enough” in this country.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Anne Longfield, who chairs a year-long committee on young people’s lives, said she supported extending free school meals to all families on Universal Credit for “some time”, adding that it was something Marcus Rashford and Henry Dimbleby had also requested.
It came as teachers’ unions wrote to the Chancellor and the Education Secretary calling for free school meals to be provided to all children in families on Universal Credit in England.
In a letter seen by the BBC, unions and organizations claiming to represent 1 million school staff called for an “urgent” extension of the scheme amid the cost of living crisis. He said vulnerable children who did not receive meals faced a “real barrier to learning”.
“We see the devastating reality of children coming to school who cannot afford to buy lunch because their family situation means they do not meet the restrictive criteria for eligibility for free school meals” , indicates the letter.
Longfield said:[Free school meals for families on universal credit] is something that makes sense every day,” Longfield said.
“But right now we’re in huge financial turmoil, families are struggling with the huge increase in the cost of living, so [free school meals] adds certainty.
“It means all children get a nutritious meal, they learn and concentrate better, and it makes a positive difference to their physical health and their time in school.”
Longfield said she supports free school meals for all primary-aged children because it “removes the stigma of young children taking free school meals.”
She added: “But at the end of the day it’s about fighting poverty, which we haven’t done well enough in this country.”
However, she said a “first step” would be to first extend it to low-income families.
In England, all public school pupils up to year two are eligible for free school meals during school terms.
For English pupils in year three and above, those living in households receiving income-related benefits (such as Universal Credit) are eligible, as long as their annual household income does not exceed £7,400 after tax. This figure does not include social benefits.
In Northern Ireland, the cap is set at £14,000 per year.
Scotland and Wales have pledged to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils.
A government spokesperson, responding to the letter, said: ‘We recognize that millions of households across the UK are struggling to raise their incomes to cover the rising cost of living, this is why, in addition to the over £22 billion previously announced, we are providing over £15 billion in additional support, particularly targeting those most in need.