'Free school meals are a hand up, not a handout'

This college principal benefited from FSM before FE set him on his career path – and he believes others deserve the same
23rd October 2020, 2:20pm


'Free school meals are a hand up, not a handout'

Child Poverty: One College Principal Explains How Important Free School Meals Were To Him As A Child

I joined Twitter nearly six years ago and genuinely think it's a superb platform. For me, it's a great way to promote our wonderful sector and my superb college.  Furthermore, I also find it a useful source of information related to other non-education interests I have including football, politics and economics. I rarely post personal stuff as this is….well…personal. 

This changed recently when 322 MPs voted against helping the most needy young people receive much-needed support in the form of free school meals over the school holidays. I took to Twitter with a personal thread about my formative years growing up on an inner-city council estate in Leicester, when I benefited from free school meals myself.

I talked about the two-course school dinner and how sometimes, if you were really lucky, you'd get seconds - milk and dinner. I said that food was hard to come by at home and, for a number of years, an Oxo cube and cheap white bread was what we ate.  

It was a seven-tweet long thread and it could quite easily have been 700 tweets long. There was so much that thread left out and a Subbuteo/Superglue/pasty/Wonderweb story is for another day.

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One of the things the thread also overlooked and, on reflection, should have addressed especially as it was #CollegesWeek, was the role education played in my life during those years. As I said in the thread, I loved going to schools and the free school meals were greatly appreciated by me. I loved playing sport and I was fortunate enough to go to primary and secondary schools that embraced physical education. I genuinely liked learning stuff as well and I did enjoy most, if not all, subjects.

Child poverty: The importance of free school meals

At home, school and education were hardly ever discussed. I was never asked if I had homework, had done my homework or needed any help with my homework. School was discussed in terms of my behaviour and, maybe unlike nowadays, I was told in no uncertain terms what would happen to me if I misbehaved and "brought trouble to the door".

With all this said, I didn't do well in school, especially in terms of how schools are measured nowadays. I achieved the equivalent of three GCSEs - I did O levels, but I'll keep it current. This wasn't met with any anger at home, I had a job lined up and off into the world of work I went at the age of 16. The world of work was great for me for three main reasons. Firstly, it gave me economic independence. I didn't have to ask anyone for money to do things I wanted to do and I found this liberating. Secondly, it got me into good habits. 

These are touted as "soft skills" now and are things like turning up for work on time, working in a team, using my own initiative and wanting to learn, develop and improve.  Finally, it made me realise that the world of work without decent qualifications was harsh. I knuckled down, worked hard but did not progress at work as I didn't have the right qualifications.

This is where FE, and what is now called Leicester College, came to the rescue.  Whilst working on a full-time basis, I still needed that economic independence, I studied on a part-time basis starting in the 1988-89 academic year. Little did I know at that time that I'd end up doing this for four years and this would see me eventually move north and out of Leicester to study for a degree. Simply put, Leicester College helped to transform my life and I shall be forever grateful. If you'd have told the 16-year-old FSM me that by the age of 22 I'd be going to university, I'd have laughed in your face. I would have said it wasn't for the likes of me as I genuinely believed that at the time.

Now I'm blessed and fortunate to be able to tell the students at Hartlepool College of FE that they can achieve. For some, university is where they're heading and for others it's the world of work, which is great. It's a shame where we are with some politicians' views of those who need a little more support. For me, free school meals were a hand up and not a handout, and maybe that's how we should see it.

Darren Hankey is principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education.

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