Figures obtained by Tes suggest that around 100,000 pupils are not claiming free school meals – despite being eligible – which means schools are losing out on at least £93 million year.
Experts say perceived stigma and lack of awareness are among the reasons why families do not claim free school meals (FSM) - which come with additional pupil premium funding for state schools, at current levels, of £1,320 per pupil per year (primary) and £935 per pupil (secondary).
The DfE says the 100,000 figure it has provided is approximate, and does not have information on whether non-claimants are mostly of primary or secondary age.
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Tes estimates that if the majority of non-claimants were of secondary school age the amount schools were losing would be closer to £93.5 million, but if the majority were primary age the figure could be nearer £132 million per year – at a time when headteachers and unions have identified a schools funding crisis.
The DfE says it has now introduced an eligibility checking system, which it says makes the checking process "as quick and straightforward as possible for schools and local authorities". It is also giving guidance about eligibility in Jobcentres.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are determined to give every child, regardless of their background, the very best start in life. Free school meals are key to this and we want all parents whose children are entitled to them to apply for them."
A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission identified perceived stigma and lack of awareness as being among the reasons why families do not claim free school meals, and said many schools were increasing awareness among parents, as well as reducing the likelihood of FSM pupils being identified by their peers, for example introducing cashless payment systems.
However, State of the Nation 2018-19 also states: “It remains the case that schools are not being given the full amount of pupil premium funding that they would be entitled to if funding was based on the number of families who are eligible, rather than the number of families who register.
The report also recommends that the government consider whether differential levels of funding might be more beneficial for those with long-term disadvantage.
Social mobility commissioner Sammy Wright, who is one of the commissioners attached to education as well as a deputy head in Sunderland, said schools should receive more cash for pupils who have been on free school meals longer.
He told Tes: “We looked at one local authority in Surrey where the average time [for claiming FSM] was six months and in Middlesbrough, where the average was three and a half years. We might call that the same thing but it’s not. There’s a big difference between dad being out of work for six months and then he gets another job as a stockbroker, and the trend of long-term unemployment.”
The report found that the gap between rich and poor pupils was "stagnating". At age 11, disadvantaged pupils are 14 percentage points behind better-off peers in attainment. This rises to a 22.5 percentage gap at age 19.
As reported in Tes, primary schools could have lost around £67m in pupil premium following the introduction of free infant meals for all pupils in 2014 – because parents were not required to register for the meals therefore there was less evidence available of which families were eligible for pupil premium.