This week, MPs have debated the ins-and-outs of the Digital Economy Bill, which allows for greater data sharing between government departments and local authorities.
Head Teachers from the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) have called on the government to support the addition of a new clause to the bill, which would explicitly set out that local councils can share the benefit data they hold with schools.
This would ensure children are automatically enrolled to receive free school meals, rather than having to apply for this.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We know that not all children who are eligible for free school meals claim them. The government can change that by accepting this amendment today.
“Auto-registration for free school meals would ensure more children get the support they are entitled to. Schools would also see a boost in funding through the pupil premium, which is given to schools to support children registered for free school meals.
“At a time when school budgets are being pushed beyond breaking point, and an Autumn Statement delivers nothing beyond the government’s project of grammar schools, this change could deliver much needed support and money for children and schools.”
James Bowen, director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge, said: “Middle leaders strive to deliver for all children, and in particular deliver extra support for children who need it most. The government has recognised this in attaching pupil premium money to the number of children on free school meals. The problem is uptake.
“With universal infant free school meals, many schools have seen a drop off in the number of children claiming free school meals from Year 3 onwards when the universal entitlement no longer applies.
“The government created this cliff edge, and it can address it today by bringing in auto-registration. This is a small change that could make a huge difference to children and schools. If the government is truly committed to social mobility, surely it should make the easiest of changes to give all disadvantaged children the support they deserve.”
The Department for Education website says older children could be eligible for free school meals if their parents receive any of a range of benefits that includes income support; income-based jobseeker's allowance, child tax credit, working tax credit and universal credit.