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The BBC's education correspondent Sue Littlemore
"For tens of thousands of school children there is such a thing as a free lunch"
 real 56k

Geoff Edwards of Plymouth County Council
and Martin Barnes of Child Poverty Action Group
 real 56k

Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Fear factor in free school meals
school cafeteria
Pupils may feel ashamed even if they are not teased
More than 350,000 children a day do not claim the free school meal they are entitled to - often, researchers say, out of fear of being stigmatised.

People just think that if you're on free school meals you're going to be a one sock person, they think that you're not very nice and that your parents just can't be bothered to get a job or something

Of the 1.8 million children in England who are eligible for free meals, on average one in five does not claim, according to research commissioned by the Child Poverty Action Group and published by the Department for Education.

The report by researchers at London University's Institute of Education says that, embarrassment aside, many children are put off by the quality and choice of food.

Free meals are available to children whose parents get income support or the income based jobseeker's allowance - and, in some cases, children of asylum seekers.

Ignorance and fear

Researchers Pamela Storey and Rosemary Chamberlin visited seven secondary schools, two middle and four primaries in seven English education authorities - with a mixture of high and low take-up of free meals.

I'm going from my own bad experiences. Free school meals, it was the same as the National Health spectacles syndrome

They found that 11% of parents who could claim but had not, either did not know they could, or did not know how to apply.

But stigma was the biggest factor.

A third of the pupils surveyed and more than two fifths of parents said embarrassment or fear of being teased were what put people off.

Parents often remembered their own schooldays and said they wanted to protect their children from being seen as "different".


In fact, most pupils did not report teasing or bullying - although the researchers say there was evidence that it went on without the knowledge of school staff, especially in schools where relatively few pupils took free meals.

It's embarrassing, 'cause you have to stand there and get your name ticked off. The dinner ladies still don't know me after two years

But even where there was no obvious problem, pupils worried about what they believed others thought of them.

Often pupils claiming free meals had to identify themselves to catering staff - either by giving their names, to be ticked off on an entitlement list kept at the till, or by handing over meal tickets.

An obvious solution adopted by some schools is a cashless "swipe card" system which preserves pupils' anonymity.

Where hot meals are not available - as in many primary schools in particular - the wrapping of the free packed lunches, which were also stored separately from pupils' home-made meals, clearly identified them.


Food quality was also a consideration for two thirds of pupils and parents who did not take up free meals.

In secondary school cafeterias the food was often described as unhealthy and unappealing.

Sandwiches are so expensive on a dinner ticket. You can't get a sandwich and a drink at the same time

Typically, most pupils paid 20-30p more than the value of the free meal.

The Child Poverty Action Group says children getting free meals had to pay extra, chose unhealthy but cheaper options or simply went hungry.

In one school, prices were not clearly marked - causing embarrassment at the till.

Poorer children's friends might be bringing in packed lunches instead - but those who took the free cooked meals were unable to sit and eat with them.

Way forward

In practice, a quarter of the parents whose children were receiving "free" meals provided additional money or food.

The action group is calling for:

  • better advertising to eligible parents and simpler registration
  • reassurance for parents that their children will not be singled out
  • cashless payment systems in cafeterias
  • vigilance against teasing
  • better meals
"School meals play an important role in promoting healthy eating and tackling disadvantage," said the action group's director, Martin Barnes.

"It is unacceptable that around a third of a million children do not claim the free school meal to which they are entitled.

"Eliminating stigma and improving the quality and choice of meals available will make a significant difference for many low income families and their children."

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See also:

27 Sep 00 | Wales
Poorest pupils miss free meals
09 Dec 99 | Education
Call to end school meals stigma
28 May 99 | Education
Grammar schools 'excluding the poor'
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