Making a meal of it

Nine-year-old Rachel lives in the south-west of England with her mum, who has trouble making ends meet from her small business. They live on income support, which makes Rachel eligible for free school meals. Instead, her grandparents pay for her to buy her school dinners, just like everyone else. Why? "The way the school organises school meals payments could lead to our granddaughter being stigmatised in a school where few children are from low income families, " says Henry, her grandfather.

At Rachel's school, children from families on income support receive vouchers that they hand in for their free meals. Everyone else pays with cash. If she used the vouchers, Rachel would feel different from her friends and would be identified as being poor. As well as making her feel singled out, it could lead to name-calling and bullying.

While the headteacher instituted the new system to enable children to learn how to handle money, he clearly had not thought about its effect on children receiving free meals. "It's no benefit to them learning how to use vouchers, " says Henry wryly. "From where we are sitting, the new system seems to be stigmatising a child whose family receives benefit."

Rachel is not the only child eligible for free school meals but not taking them up. A 1993 survey of six London boroughs carried out by the Child Poverty Action Group showed that a sizable proportion of children who could receive them were not. In one borough, the figure was as high as 30 per cent. Other studies show that low take-up is widespread - and one of the reasons is the fear of stigma.

While it is true that secondary pupils are more sensitive to possible stigma, Rachel's example shows that parents' sensitivities can run just as high on behalf of their young children.

It is also true that with sensible management, there is no reason for anybody to know how children's school dinners are being paid for. Many local education authorities run a centrally-processed system. Hertfordshire is an example. At Icknield Walk First School in Royston, head John McGrellis says: "There is no cash system or transaction involving the children at all. Parents pay weekly or termly, and free school entitlement is done through the county. So no child knows who pays and who doesn't. It's a humane system."

But where there is no centralised system, how can you ensure that a child is not made to feel uncomfortable by receiving free school meals? Pat Petrie, senior researcher at the London Institute of Education says: "There should be no way of differentiating between children at the point of delivery. For example, you could give all children vouchers. Or if that was not possible, you could ensure that when a child brought their money in, it was not done as a high profile activity. The bottom line should always be a whole school policy in place against bullying, name-calling and differentiating on any grounds. "

Differentiating is asking for trouble, says another head in the Home Counties: "Injury is done when there are separate arrangements made for children receiving free meals." At her school, all children collect dinner tickets on Monday mornings from the school secretary in the dinner hall.

What is important is that parents fully understand the procedures, which is where many schools seem to be falling down. If people feel uncomfortable about being on benefit to begin with, the thought of their children having to bear a social stigma attached to it can feel like the last straw. Schools need to develop systems for avoiding any differentiation between paying and non-paying children and parents need to be fully informed about the arrangements.

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