Free meals not seen as flavour of the month;Hot data;Briefing;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Many of the 1.3 million children too poor to pay for their school

dinners choose not to eat them, reports John Howson

THE NUMBER of children on "free school meals" is often used as an indicator of social hardship in the apparent absence of any better measure.

Last January, 1.3 million children were known to be eligible for this benefit.

Numbers are high in the North-east and the North-west, especially in Merseyside. But they are highest in the inner-London boroughs.

Many more primary than secondary pupils are eligible, except in London - and particularly inner London - where a greater percentage of secondary pupils qualify.

According to figures published in January this year, more than four out of every 10 children in inner-London schools were eligible for free meals.

However, it is interesting is that a significant percentage of all eligible pupils don't take up their right to the meals. In inner London, despite its many impoverished children, 5 per cent of primary and nearly 12 per cent of secondary pupils did not apparently consume the meals available to them.

Similar poor levels of take-up are apparent in the other parts of the country where there is high eligibility.

Whether the poor level of take-up is due to any stigma attached to being a "free school meals" pupil, or a teenage lack of interest in school food, can't be determined from the statistics, but perhaps the usefulness of this indicator should be reviewed.

John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. E-mail:

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