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Council want more eligible families to take up free school meals

Nottinghamshire County Council will explore new ways of promoting free school meal take-up as figures show nearly a quarter of children are claiming.

The Conservative-run authority approved a motion at its full council meeting on Thursday (March 30) aimed at increasing the number of pupils taking advantage of the service.

Free school meals are offered to families and children if they meet relevant criteria.

This could include parents claiming various benefits such as Housing Benefits, Jobseekers’ Allowance or Universal Credit.

It provides access to meals during school hours and eligible children and families have also been supported with food vouchers during school holidays.

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Latest data from the council show 25,265 pupils are currently claiming the meals countywide – working out at 22.1 per cent of the 114,497 pupils in Nottinghamshire.

Ashfield has the highest proportion of claiming children, at 5,283 pupils or 29.4 per cent of all pupils, followed by Mansfield with 4,681.

The Mansfield figure works out at 28 per cent of all available pupils in the district.

Rushcliffe is the area with the lowest number of claiming children, at 2,015 or 11.2 per cent of all pupils.

There are also 3,795 pupils claiming in Bassetlaw, 2,913 in Broxtowe, 3,208 in Gedling and 3,370 in Newark and Sherwood.

Now the county council has approved the motion and will “expand and seek new methods of enrolling children onto free school meals”.

This could explore the possibility of auto-enrolling children onto the meals by using existing Housing Benefits and council tax reduction data.

A similar system is in place in Sheffield, though the authority says this may prove difficult due to data protection and data sharing laws.

Public awareness campaigns for free school meals will also be launched “so those currently not aware of their entitlement can benefit”.

“The council believes this will increase free school meal uptake in Nottinghamshire, which will lead to additional pupil premium funding to help reduce the gap in attainment,” the approved motion adds.

The motion was initially proposed by Cllr Francis Purdue-Horan (Ind) and Cllr Debbie Darby (Ind), of the Independent Alliance.

Their original motion called for the automatic enrolment of pupils onto free school meals and for an ‘opt-out’ policy to be enforced.

Cllr Darby said in the meeting: “I would plea with members to back the plans outlined in this motion.

“If it feeds one more child or raises one more pound for one more school, it will be worth it.

“The reality, too, is that it will do far more than that – it’s the exact reason we are here.”

Cllr Purdue-Horan added: “The long-term ambition of the Independent Alliance is universal free school meals.

“We have to accept, however, that such is the current financial climate – we have to find a way to ensure every child who currently qualifies for free school meals gets them at a minimum.”

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However, the motion was amended by Cllr Ben Bradley MP (Con), the council’s leader, and Cllr Tracey Taylor (Con), cabinet member for children and families.

Cllr Bradley said: “I hope this amendment is uncontroversial and expands the scope of what’s being asked.

“It helps us to do even more and the idea of supporting eligible children to take up their entitlement to free school meals is one we support.

“We’re very keen to do more. We want to do a wider range of options.

“I don’t believe an opt-out policy would be legal under data protection laws and auto-enrolment is yet to be fully implemented anywhere for that reason.

“We’ll happily investigate these proposals and consider any options to promote the take-up of this service.”

2,646 meals were provided to eligible children during the Easter, summer and October school holidays in 2022.

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