One million children living in poverty in England will miss out on free school meals when Universal Credit is rolled out, according to a charity.
The Children’ Society says government plans to change the free school meals system to a means-tested one risks creating a ‘cliff-edge’ where many families would be better off taking a pay cut.
Figures gathered by the charity show once a family with one child passes the £7,400 cut-off, they would need to earn £1,124 a year more – the equivalent of working 2.4 hours extra every week – to make up for the loss in free school meals.
MPs across the Commons have already raised fears the implementation of the new system will push millions of families into poverty.
Children’s Society chief executive Matthew Reed said: “The government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school.
“There are significant, proven benefits for children’s health, education and their futures in making sure they have a healthy lunch every day, but at least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced.
“Continuing to provide free school meals for all children on Universal Credit would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise. Universal credit was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.
“If the government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering free school meals for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.”
The regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria. In London, 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals, with 130,000 in the West Midlands and the same number in the North West.
According to the society, if free school meals were offered to all children whose families claim Universal Credit, about two million from poor and low-income families in England would benefit once the roll-out of the controversial benefit is finished.
Under the system being replaced by Universal Credit, only families where parents are working too few hours to claim working tax credits are entitled to free school meals – meaning under new rules, just 700,000 of the 1,700,000 youngsters in poverty who could be helped will receive them.
The government claims the new threshold will deliver free lunches to 50,000 more children across the country.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said teachers had made clear the impact of poverty on the children they teach.
“If children are coming to school hungry it will clearly impact negatively on their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as affecting learning through an inability to concentrate,” she added.
“Taking away free school meals for families on Universal Credit is an unnecessary and damaging move that will cause huge distress and problems for many families. It is extraordinary that a government that says it is committed to addressing inequality in education cannot grasp this fact.”
A consultation to changes to free school meals entitlement under Universal Credit is running until January 11 and responses can be submitted through the Children’s Society website.