While more than 1.2 million pupils in England receive free school meals, their peers in FE and sixth-form colleges are not eligible for the same support. As a result, more than 100,000 college students - who would have been entitled to free lunches if they attended a school sixth form - miss out.
But a campaign by the Association of Colleges (AoC) to rectify what education secretary Michael Gove has described as an "anomaly" is gathering political momentum.
After former education secretary David Blunkett led a discussion on the issue at Westminster Hall this summer, TES has learned that a debate will be held in the Commons on Tuesday, with backing from across the political spectrum.
And with shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg and children's charity Barnardo's both signalling their support for the campaign, confidence is growing in the FE sector that what Mr Blunkett described as an "inequitable, unfair and discriminatory" incongruity may finally be addressed.
"Even the secretary of state for education has acknowledged this anomaly, which means the most disadvantaged students are penalised for choosing to study in an FE college rather than a school sixth form," said Janet Grauberg, Barnardo's UK director of strategy. "We now need action, not words, to stop this happening. The Barnardo's report, Staying the Course, found that some of the poorest students are skipping meals just to afford the bus to college. We fully support the AoC and urge the government to correct this disparity as soon as possible."
A spokesman for shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg also backed the campaign, but stopped short of saying the party would extend free lunches to colleges. "We are sympathetic to the campaign, and are grateful to the AoC for raising it. It is clear that there is unfairness here, though we can't make a spending commitment at this stage. We hope the government will take action to rectify this anomaly," he said.
The Commons debate was secured by Labour MP Nic Dakin, former principal of John Leggott College in Scunthorpe, who described the status quo as "grossly unfair". "For hard-working students to be denied access to a free meal simply because they have chosen to study at a college rather than a state-maintained school is unjust. This inequality needs to be addressed with urgency as it is also a bar to social mobility," Mr Dakin said.
Among those backing the debate were three Conservative and three Liberal Democrat MPs.
The AoC estimates that the cost of making college students eligible for free lunches would be pound;38 million a year, "a modest amount in the context of the Department for Education budget".
This summer, former schools minister Nick Gibb claimed that the move would actually cost "significantly more than that". "In the current fiscal climate it would be genuinely difficult to increase spending by between pound;35 million and pound;70 million, however desirable it would be to extend free school meals to students at sixth-form and FE colleges. Of course, we keep the matter under review," he said.
AoC president Maggie Galliers, who is also principal of Leicester College, said that, with family budgets already under pressure, paying for food at lunchtime is an "additional burden". "We need to level the playing field so that young people, wherever they study, are able to get the most out of their learning," she said. "It is very heartening to see MPs, charities and students coming together to try to effect this change in central government funding."
Photo credit: Anita Maricnewsteam
Original headline: There's no such thing as a free lunch in FE