A few weeks ago my son’s school sent home a circular, pleading with those who might be eligible for free school meals to claim them, even if they preferred a packed lunch. This is because the more poor kids the head has on roll, the more money the government will stump up for the school in the shape of the £430 premium paid per “deprived pupil”, as the Department for Education so delicately puts it on its website.
As much as I wanted to help the school out, my child was ineligible. That’s not because we’re rich. I’m a lone parent because my son’s father died when he was very small and I’m a freelance writer who regularly earns below the £16,000 annual threshold for free school dinners. But my son isn’t entitled to eat lumpy mash for nothing because I receive Working Tax Credit. In other words, I work more than 16 hours a week.
No big deal, you might say. Lunches cost only £7 a week. But, actually, free entry to the school dining experience is becoming a massive deal.
Until recently, free school meals were just that — a few quid you didn’t have to fork out for your children’s lunch if your income was low. Now the government has all kinds of plans for them. Not only are they the basis for the new pupil premium, but they’re also set to act as the eligibility criteria for two years’ free university tuition and as a way of prioritising admissions to academies.
This could be an amazing free lunch for at least 430,000 pupils. These are the children whose parents bring in less than £16,000 and receive benefits paid only to the jobless or part-time workers. But there’ll be no such help for the million kids that the Child Poverty Action Group estimates are living in poverty but who pay for their lunch. Their parents are the ones who are working flat out for little reward or are too proud to apply.
What kind of message does that send to children? That if you want to succeed, it’s best not to work or not to work very much? How does that square with encouraging them to study hard to go to university and achieve to the best of their ability?
Sour grapes aside, my priorities will be getting my son into a top secondary school and doing my best to ensure that neither of us has to find an extra £18,000 (or whatever two years at university will cost in ten years’ time). So what’s my best option? Making sure I work less than 16 hours a week at key points in my son’s education, of course, unless the government considers overhauling free school meals or the way it defines poor. Because, as the L’Oréal ads never quite said, it’ll be worth it.