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Driving uptake of Free School Meals through opt-out automatic enrolment

Around one in ten pupils eligible for Free School Meals in England are not registered and so are missing out on lunches, as well as leaving schools unable to claim pupil premium and other important disadvantage funding. Read on for experiences, challenges and resources from networks and local authorities driving uptake of Free School Meals through opt-out automatic enrolment schemes.

Primary school children working in class. Copyright: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock

Primary school children working in class. Copyright: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock

What is the issue?

Analysis undertaken by both the Child Poverty Action Group in 2021 in the North East of England and by the Department for Education (DfE)’s in 2023 estimate that around 11% of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) are not currently registered, or taking up their entitlement. There could be several reasons for this, including the paperwork and bureaucracy of having to apply, language or literacy issues, a feeling of stigma or embarrassment or not wishing to be identified.

Scaled up to national level, this translates into up to 200-250,000 children who are eligible but currently missing out in England, even under the current draconian £7,400 threshold which also excludes a further 900,000 children and young people living in poverty, but not entitled for free school meals.

As well as children missing out on meals, schools are also able to claim pupil premium funding for every pupil registered for FSM, or who has been eligible and registered at any time in the previous 6 years (known as FSM Ever6).

Pupil Premium funding provides schools with extra resources to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, which might include additional specialist resources and support, or funding the costs of uniforms, trips, breakfast and after-school clubs. This is currently set at £1,455 per primary pupil and £1,035 per secondary pupil per year.

With the numbers involved, this means that schools across England are potentially losing out on an estimated £200-300 million funding per year. 

Experiences from councils and local authorities

Since 2016, Sheffield City Council has been implementing an ‘opt-out / auto award’ process for registering pupils for FSM. Each year, in the late summer, families are identified who have been claiming Housing Benefit or Council Tax support but who have not registered for FSM. The families are then contacted to say that their child will be registered, unless the family chooses to opt out.

For Sheffield alone, the programme has so far resulted in 2,103 primary claims and 1,182 secondary claims being made, bringing benefits to the children and families, but also an estimated £3.8 million in school pupil premium over the seven years for the schools involved.

The Fix Our Food Programme led by the University of York, the Food Foundation and Bremner & Co, and funded by Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund, has set out to test and evaluate the ‘Sheffield model’ of opt-out automatic enrolment, with at least 20 local authorities.

In the first year of the project, five local authorities were able to work quickly to set up the ‘opt-out / auto award’ automatic enrolment process, which delivered 2,814 additional free school meal registrations and recovered £4.7m of pupil premium and school income.

In Lambeth, the opt-out award process resulted in 340 more pupils being identified and registered. 79% were from BAME communities, 50% did not have English as a first language, 89% were from lone parent households. This highlights how important this process might be for national Government and local authorities to ensure delivery of FSM in line with their duties under both the Education Act and the Equalities Act. 

Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Wandsworth have conducted similar exercises. Tower Hamlets identified 921 FSM eligible pupils and were able to register 821 of these. Lewisham identified 500 families with children who were potentially eligible to receive pupil premium funding, but had not applied, and were able to recover £1.2 million for their local schools.

The Greater London Authority is now working alongside several local authorities and there are wider discussions across London councils to explore a pan-London approach, recognizing how many children cross borough boundaries when going to school.

Cllr Ben Kind, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People in Lambeth said in a recent press release:

“Our commitment to maximising Free School Meals enrolment not only ensures fairer access to essential nourishment for children in Lambeth’s schools but also directly channels vital additional funding into our schools. We’ve highlighted to central Government how they’ve held back on funding our schools properly. Rather than wait for the Government to act, by embracing this approach, we’ve secured a substantial £370,000 in new funding for Lambeth schools.

“Recognising that households from Black, Asian, and Multi-ethnic backgrounds are often overrepresented among our lower-income residents, this proactive strategy targets equity and justice. With 79% of the children benefiting from this initiative coming from these backgrounds, we’re taking tangible steps to alleviate financial burdens and guarantee that schools catering to these communities receive their rightful funding.” 

The success of these pilots has triggered huge interest among local authorities, and Fix our Food is now working with 34 councils, providing support and advice, as well as co-ordinating a national working group bringing together local and national expertise.

Professor Maria Bryant, who leads the Fix our Food in Schools programme at the University of York says:

“We are seeing unprecedented interest from local authorities in delivering auto-enrolment processes. There is a clear need to support the growing number of families in need, whilst also providing much-needed financial support to schools. Data so far indicates that the process is having a substantial impact, but in our interviews with local authorities, we are also learning about the resource and governance challenges they face.”

 

Challenges

While they have achieved major progress in registration, the pilots have also shown how challenging it is to identify all children who are missing out. For example, where children go to school in a different council area, the relevant data is not available. The process can also be resource intensive for councils. Data sets are complex and not all pupils can be identified. Staff resources able to work across multiple council departments may be needed and the process incurs onerous governance and administration at council and school level.

There is now a good body of experience in navigating the legal and data protection issues involved. Section 512 of the Education Act 1996 places a duty on maintained schools, academies and free schools to provide FSM to pupils of all ages that meet the criteria (i.e. are eligible ). To receive FSM, a claim must be made by the pupil, their parent or another responsible adult, before the pupil becomes registered and entitled.

This can be done through the school or direct to a relevant council. The DfE have created an Eligibility Checking Service (ECS), which is an IT database that draws on data held by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Home Office and HMRC. The ECS is promoted through councils, and other organisations (such as London Grid for Learning) have created their own ECS services and promote this to schools. FSM applications can be checked off against this and DfE have also provided guidance and a model paper form for schools to use.

Local authorities must always ensure appropriate use of personal data, and so data-protection impact assessments have been carried out by all councils when delivering opt-out automatic enrolment schemes. Evidence from councils that have piloted the approach shows it resulted in substantial impact for families, children and schools and due process was followed to satisfy data protection and GDPR matters. Besides Section 512 of the Education Act 1996, councils cited the Digital Economy Act 2017 which was brought in to support information sharing for vulnerable families. Other councils cited the Localism Act and Public Task as justification for use of existing benefits data. However, better clarity and guidance is required from national government to avoid confusion regarding legal aspects of the process and remove burdensome additional data governance and administration.

There is a growing body of expertise and experience in how to navigate the system, and clear evidence of the impact available on the Fix our Food toolkit.

 

What is the long term solution?

Despite evidence of positive impact, individual council-led opt-out automatic enrolment processes are not a long-term solution, given the uncertainties of whether they capture registration of all those pupils who are eligible, as well as the resource and intensity involved. 

For this reason, the Fix our Food network is also calling on Government to implement a new FSM/pupil premium auto-enrolment system that captures all eligible pupils and removes the significant administrative burdens that are placed on schools and councils.

This sounds like an obvious solution and in answer to recent parliamentary questions, the Department for Education’s response is encouraging. For example, in answer to Sharon Hodgson MP's question of 11 of March 2024, Damien Hinds, Minister of State (Education) replied: 

"Maximising the take up of free school meals is important in ensuring that as many eligible children as possible benefit from a healthy and nutritious meal. The department aims to make it as simple as possible for schools and local authorities to determine eligibility.

"To support this, an Eligibility Checking System has been provided to make the checking process as quick and straightforward as possible for schools and local authorities.

"The department has looked at auto-enrolment and considers there to be merit in local authorities exploring initiatives to maximise take up and to better understand the barriers that prevent such take up, whilst ensuring adherence to legal and data protection constraints, which still remains an important consideration."

Pressure is mounting. On March 14th, Sustain's Children’s Food Campaign joined over 130 signatories to a letter to Schools Minister Damien Hinds, co-ordinated by the School Food Review coalition, Fix our Food, the Food Foundation and Bremner & Co, calling for a national automatic enrolment process for FSM.

Furthermore, there is recent precedent for automatic registration and funding distribution on welfare support systems using centrally held data, for example the cost-of-living payment scheme and the warm home discount. This demonstrates it can be done, with political will. The School Food Review Group is now convening a national working group on auto-enrolment to explore further advocacy on this topic.

Recommendations

The Fix our Food programme is calling on the Government to:

1. Set an ambitious timeline and process for the introduction of a new national automatic enrolment system by 2025, that removes the need for additional burdensome administration. (DWP & DfE) 

2. Champion and promote Councils to adopt an opt-out, automatic enrolment approach to maximise FSM registration until national systems are established. 

  • Clarify the use of data concerns.  
  • Work with the Local Government Association (and respective devolved agencies) to agree how Universal Credit and other relevant benefits data can be accessed and used for the introduction of respective council opt-out mechanisms. (DWP & DfE & respective developed agencies

3. Commission an up-to-date FSM registration rates dataset so that a current assessment of under registration rates can be reviewed. (DfE, but with DWP & HMRC working together)

Resources

  • A Fix our Food toolkit is available for any council wishing to explore undertaking an opt-out automatic enrolment process for FSM.
  • Local authorities undertaking this process are encouraged to contribute to Fix our Food’s research and evaluation process, and complete an expression of interest.
  • National organisations or local authorities wishing to contribute to the School Food Review’s national working group on automatic enrolment can get in touch with Myles Bremner.

 

Request the toolkit

Request to join the national working group

Published Wednesday 13 March 2024

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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Sofia provides strategic oversight, programme and staff management to local action projects and campaigns at Sustain.

Sofia Parente
Head of Local Action

Barbara joined Sustain in 2018 and manages the Children’s Food Campaign, which champions children’s rights, parent power and government action to improve the food environment children grow up in. This includes campaigning for tighter regulations of junk food marketing to children, better school food and reducing children’s consumption of sugary or unhealthy food.

Barbara Crowther
Campaign Manager Children's Food Campaign

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