Free School Meals Entitlement

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 16th September 2013.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 1:00 pm, 16th September 2013

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.  The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.  One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List.  The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.  All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the importance of free school meals entitlement; welcomes the increase in children who are accessing free school meals; and calls on the Minister of Education to explore ways in which the uptake of free school meals can be improved.

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  I thank the Business Office for including the motion on today's Order Paper.  The motion calls on the Assembly to recognise the importance of free school meals entitlement; welcomes the fact that the current Minister of Education has, again, extended eligibility for free school meals, and, perhaps most importantly, calls on the Minister to explore ways in which the uptake of free school meals can be improved.  I am pleased to support the amendment that appears on the Marshalled List.  Like many, I support the principle of universality and believe that, as an Assembly, we should join today to ask the Minister to engage with his Executive colleagues on the benefits of universal free school meals in the years ahead.

It is fair to state that most of us in the Chamber this afternoon would accept that the catalyst for improving educational outcomes is the high-quality teaching and learning in schools.  However, increasingly, there is a realisation that improved outcomes, especially for children from socio-disadvantaged backgrounds, are largely dependent on a range of socio-economic factors.  Indeed, when we bear in mind that as little as 9% of learning between the ages of four and 18 takes place inside the classroom, the strategic importance of tackling socio-economic disadvantage in tandem with wider societal anti-poverty schemes becomes all the more apparent.  It is, therefore, hugely significant that educational programmes are central to the Executive's recently announced Delivering Social Change framework.  Indeed, given the social importance of education, it is impossible to separate educational opportunity from the wider need for social justice, including the urgent need to address the legacy and enduring nature of poverty in our society.  In a world where the socio-economic context too often determines the educational outcomes of pupils, there can be no doubt that the successful eradication of the poverty flaw in the system will help to propel large swathes of children out of deprivation, disadvantage and underachievement.

With that in mind, it is encouraging that measures designed to mitigate the effects of social disadvantage in our education system are working, as we continue to observe an increase in educational outcomes, culminating most emphatically this year with primary school pupils here being ranked among the very best in the world in literacy and numeracy.  Undoubtedly, the growing success of our pupils is multi-causal, but there can be no doubt that anti-poverty measures, such as free school meals, are having a huge impact on educational and health prospects for a growing number of young people.  However, although there has, undoubtedly, been continued improvement in educational outcomes, there remains a gulf in performance between pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more affluent backgrounds.  Indeed, the figures are quite stark.  Last year, only 34% of pupils who receive free school meals achieved five or more good GCSEs compared with 68% of those who are not entitled to free school meals.  To put it bluntly, a pupil is twice as likely to achieve good GCSEs if he or she is not from a socially disadvantaged background. 

That situation speaks volumes about the ever-present need to support disadvantaged pupils in an effort to ensure that they achieve their full potential.  To that end, I am encouraged by the Minister's record of putting such a task at the very heart of many of his policies, such as the recent extension of free school meal entitlement to post-primary pupils and independent schools.  The £40 million investment will entitle some 80,000 pupils to receive free school meals, which represents an impressive increase of 42% in the past five years.  Bearing in mind the stringent economic climate of the past few years, I consider that the Minister's ongoing dedication to help those pupils from socially deprived backgrounds is invaluable.  There is no doubt that thousands of young people will be much better off for his choices.  The issue, inevitably, boils down to choices.  John O'Dowd could follow the example set by conservative coalitions in London and Dublin and wield the axe against vital measures, such as free school meals.  Indeed, the comparison with Britain reinforces the importance of having a Minister with a sense of social responsibility and social justice.  Not only have the Westminster Government scrapped various universal free school meal pilots throughout Britain, they have failed to expand eligibility for free school meals despite austerity causing a huge rise in the need for support.  That, combined with the previous decisions to abolish the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and to hike up third-level tuition fees through the roof, means that it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of young people across Britain are cursing the choices of their Education Minister.  Meanwhile, a series of socially responsible and vital choices have been taken here at home to support those who are most in need.  Not only has free school meal eligibility and, subsequently, school uniform support been extended but the Minister has argued for the retention of the vital EMA, contributing some £4 million to the scheme, and he has joined his Executive colleagues in freezing university fees.  With that in mind, it is little surprise that observers identify our Minister of Education and his socially responsible policy choices as the most acute demonstrations of the benefit of devolved government here in Ireland.

Despite the narrow political rhetoric that opponents of such social measures half-heartedly offer, there really can be no doubt about the huge benefits that free school meals bring for those pupils who are in greatest need.  At the very basic financial level, the value of free school meals is estimated at around £450 a year, based on the charge for a school meal.  Consequently, free school meals provide substantial support for low-income families, especially those families with more than one child at school.  That vital support, therefore, helps low-income families to face the financial barriers that are inherent in our education system and, indeed, ensures that their children have access to and can benefit from all the opportunities that may be open to them.  Succinctly put, school meals act as a safety net for the low-income household, helping families to educate their children and to protect their food security in times of greatest need.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

From listening to the Member, I thought that the election campaign had started, given his many eulogies about the Minister.  In light of all that the Member said, can he maybe get to one of the cruxes of the issue?  As a result of spending that money, what has been the benefit to pupils in their educational journey through school?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his comment.  I am just about to come on to the long list of benefits. 

To see the health benefits of free school meals, we need only read the comments of nutritionists and medical experts, who quite literally marvelled at the results of free school meal pilots in Britain under the last Labour Government.  It has been stated:

"In 30% of cases studied by the Eat Well Do Well report, children had taken their better dietary habits back into the home, improving diets there too."

The report showed that fewer children avoided breakfast in the mornings, fewer felt hungry throughout the day or after school and a considerably larger number of children had an evening meal.  Eating on the way to school showed a decline to just 4% of participants, while the number of pupils who went without breakfast dramatically reduced to just 3%. 

Given that more than a third of our young people are considered obese, you can see the important contribution that a healthy, balanced free school meal can make to a child's overall health.  Moreover, bearing in mind that low-income families are more likely to rely on unhealthy food due to the pressure in keeping food costs within budget, it is little wonder that free school meals contribute greatly to the overall health of those affected. 

Such a positive impact on the financial and physical well-being of our young people and their families, unsurprisingly, plays a critical role in the educational development, performance and outcomes of those young pupils.  To appreciate the educational benefits of free school meals, I think that it is best to acknowledge the opinions of teachers who see, at first hand, the impact that those measures had on their pupils. 

Again, in the wake of Eat Well Do Well pilot, more than 80% of teachers were not only in favour of free school meals but went as far as to suggest that they should be universally available for our young people.  It has been stated:

"if a child has a hot meal during the day, or at the beginning of the day, it improves exponentially that child’s ability to learn.  It improves the behaviour, concentration and ability to settle and listen of all children.  Children are less tired and irritable when they have a meal in them.  That, in turn, makes teaching easier, and more enjoyable.  And these experiences are shown to benefit the most disadvantaged the most, by virtue of their value added."

It has also been said:

"The social case for children eating together, learning together, conversing together and understanding that mealtimes can be a time for thinking and learning is powerful."

That is how it should be. 


A second teacher quoted in 'The Guardian' newspaper just last week talked about the importance of free school meals.  That teacher said:

"Children are more attentive and less lethargic in the afternoons, behaviour is much improved and standards are going up because they are concentrating more."

Absence was down, too, and according to the teacher:

"There's less illness now.  And there's less obesity."

According to 'The Guardian', the teacher:

"points proudly to ... similar pupils in areas that did not have free lunches, pupils in both places 'made between four and eight weeks' more progress over the two-year pilot period than pupils in other areas at key stages 1 and 2', but also that, as he puts it, 'the pupils who benefited most were those who were doing the worst and who came from poorer backgrounds'."

Bearing in mind the extensive benefits to our young people's education and development, especially for those pupils from socially deprived areas, it not only befits us, as representatives, to protect and secure free school meals going forward but it is vital that we look to improve the uptake.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Member will bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Initiatives such as inviting parents to tasting sessions, holding theme days to highlight different cuisines and giving pupils a say in the dishes they are offered —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up, I am afraid.  Ten minutes.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

No.  No extra minute, sorry.  Good effort.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after ‘recognises’ and insert:

"the important role of nutrition in the educational attainment of children; and, in light of increased financial pressures on working families, calls on the Minister of Education to explore ways in which to extend access to free school meals to more children."

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance of free school meals entitlement, and I hope that the Department of Education can ensure that uptake is maximised.  I also welcome recent extensions to the availability of free school meals.  It is vital that we recognise the need to improve our children's nutrition, particularly in light of increased financial pressures on working families.  We must accept that if our children are to achieve their full potential during the school day, they must be fuelled with nutritious food.  Research suggests that there is a strong link between a healthy diet and a child's behaviour and performance in school.  Healthy school meals play an important role in raising educational achievement and addressing barriers in low-income backgrounds, including those of working families. 

In recent years, many families have fallen into the poverty trap.  They hold down jobs and work hard, yet they struggle to meet many of their bills.  The working poor make a tremendous contribution to our society and deserve to be supported; in this case, when it comes to their children.  I see the breadwinner very often.  I see him every morning standing along the road at 6.30 am, going to work to provide for his family.  Many hard-working families on relatively low incomes give their children packed lunches because they do not qualify for free school meals and the cost of a school dinner is prohibitive.  If you are in that category and have three children attending primary school, over £1,200 per annum is just not affordable, and so they provide them with a packed lunch.  Bear in mind that many packed lunches fall well below nutritional standards and are frequently supplemented with crisps, sweets or fizzy drinks. 

It will be extremely difficult to counter the facts of welfare reform with respect to free school meals, and we need to be proactive as universal credit bites in England.  That alone could mean that thousands of children from poorer backgrounds go without a school dinner, but many low-income working families will be caught in a trap where it does not pay to work.  Many parents will admit that they would love to go back to work but that it is financially not viable.  Losing a free school meal entitlement could make the difference between whether people return to work or not.  We need to support people who want to work and who greatly enhance our society by the contribution that they make in the workplace.

Eligibility for free school meals is also the basis on which schools are awarded extra resources to deal with the effects of disadvantage.  If that funding was to be reduced, it would call into question the financial viability of many of our smaller schools, especially those in rural areas.  Poor achievement at school defines a substantial group of today's parents.  Many of those who have failed have poor diets that are simply not the result of a level of deprivation in the neighbourhood or living at a level of poverty that entitles them to benefits.  A mother's poor diet has an adverse effect on foetal development.  In fact, life in the womb and the first three years of life are the most important periods for mental, physical and emotional development, and that is when education capabilities are formed.  Life in preschool and primary school is built on that.  Just like breakfast, the provision of a highly nutritious meal at primary school is essential during those formative years to ensure that children can concentrate and achieve their true potential, even if there are deficits in the nutritional supply in their earlier years.  We really should aim for free school meals for all Key Stage 1 pupils.  In Scotland, they enacted legislation to that effect in 2008, but due to a strain on the public purse, they are now targeting it at 20% of the most deprived wards.  I do not believe that targeting wards is necessarily the right approach.  It needs to be targeted at those who need it most:  the poor, those on benefits and the working poor.

In conclusion, there needs to be a cross-departmental and collaborative approach between schools and the home to improve diets and to improve healthy eating for parents, especially mothers, and their children.  Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a standard of living for health and well-being.  All our children deserve that.

A free school meal can help children to stay attentive and thus achieve their potential.  Early childhood is the most effective period for investment in education.  Investing in child nutrition is a necessity and even has the potential to boost our agrifood industry.  The greatest resource we have is the intellectual power of our people.  Our children are our future generations and we must invest in them.  We need to ensure that we give them all the support they need to get through the school day, happy, healthy and ready to learn.

I call on the Minister to explore ways in which he can extend access to free school meals to more children, especially those from low income families.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I will, first, make comments as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education.  The Committee has spent some time considering the entitlement to and the level of uptake of free school meals.  It welcomed the extension of the entitlement to free school meals to more post-primary schoolchildren from September 2014.  It is understood that this change will benefit in the region of 15,000 young people.  More recently, the Committee welcomed the extension of the entitlement to free school meals to children at the 15 independent Christian schools and other non-grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland.  I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Ballymoney Independent Christian School.

The Committee previously noted the evidence put forward by the Department on the benefit of free school meals.  I think that I might fairly summarise the Department's view that the current free school meals system has educational and health benefits in improved pupil concentration and alertness and, perhaps, also in attainment.  A good suggestion might be to introduce free school meals in the Department of Education canteen.  We might see some good outcomes as a result of that.  The Department also contends that free school meals go some way towards improving access and reducing barriers to participation in education.

The Audit Office report of 2011 estimated the uptake of free school meals to be around 78% of those registered, with perhaps around 8,000 children in Northern Ireland being entitled but not registered.  The Audit Office also recommended that the Western Education and Library Board's practice of actively targeting low income parents whose children might be entitled to free school meals should be copied and that more work should be done on improving anonymity for pupils who receive free school meals.  I trust that the Minister, when he responds to the debate, might provide us with an update on the issue of uptake and registration levels, and whether any progress has been made in implementing the Audit Office recommendations.

The motion also refers to the importance of the entitlement.  Free school meals entitlement is important in a number of ways, and the House is aware that the level of entitlement to free school meals is used as a proxy measurement for poverty in our schools.  The Committee recently noted proposals in the revised common funding formula to make more use of this measure and to allocate more funding accordingly.  I think that the majority of Committee members believe that free school meals entitlement should not be the one and only measure of poverty in our schools.  In fact, the Committee supports consideration of other measures, as suggested in recommendation 21 of the Salisbury report.  We still wait to see what the Department will bring forward in relation to that matter.

I will conclude as a Member of the House and as the DUP's education spokesperson.  I will make a few comments in relation to how we got to this point.  As someone who, as I said, is a member of the board of governors of an independent Christian school, I always welcome conversions, but I just wonder when the Minister had his road to Damascus conversion on the issue of changes to the criteria.  In a question for written answer, in November 2012, I asked the Minister:

"when he will review the criteria for free school meals and extend the working tax credit entitlements to pupils in the post-primary sector."

His answer was:

"I have no plans to at present to extend the free school meal Working Tax Credit criterion."

He then went on to give us the reasons why:

"The reason why the criterion is not being extended to postprimary schools is that by targeting younger children it is considered that the greatest impact will be achieved with the available budget."

What has changed since the Minister's officials wrote that answer in November that brings us to a point at which we support the motion?  We will support the motion reluctantly, but we will also support the SDLP amendment because we do not want to give the impression that we are opposed to those who have access to an entitlement that will be a benefit.  However, we have serious reservations about linking entitlement to attainment.  Neither the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) nor the Department of Education has produced any evidence for doing so.  I notice there are no officials available to be with the Minister today.  Perhaps that is why: the Department of Education has produced no evidence.  We have to depend on studies that have been carried out —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Yes, I will.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member share the concern that has been raised with me that some parents do not claim free school meals because they are embarrassed, but they claim for free school uniforms?  Does he agree that that should be examined?

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for her intervention.  I also thank her colleague Mr Rogers for his comments about the working poor.  If we want to address educational underachievement and inequalities in outcome and provisions, particularly, as has been highlighted repeatedly, among working-class Protestant boys, we need to ensure that we do so in a way that is fair and equitable across the piece.

Bristol university carried out work on the use of free school meals and said that it found it to be:

"a coarse and unreliable indicator by which school performance is judged and leads to biased estimates of the effect of poverty on pupils' academic progress."

Yet again, the Department of Education sees a means of putting all its eggs in one basket, closing its eyes and ears and thinking that all will be well.  The Minister has learned a lesson over the weekend from the survey that was released by the General Teaching Council.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Minister closed his ears and eyes for 18 months about assessment, and teachers are today saying that it is time to scrap them.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Minister needs to revisit the issue of free school meals and come up with fair indicators that can deliver the goods.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

It is good to have an education debate early in the session.  With everything else that is going on, that is important.

We support the motion and the amendment, but with reservations.  We wish that the House had taken up the Ulster Unionist motion, because that would have allowed us to expand on and challenge the seemingly accepted correlation between free school meals entitlement and educational attainment.  In many ways, as we have just heard, that argument is flawed, which we must keep in mind during the debate.

I welcome the announcement today that free school meals will be extended in 2014, but we need to look at how we can improve that.  We must also acknowledge the fact that funds are scarce for any Department in implementing the result of the motion.  Departments should work together better to find more budget efficiencies.  I produced a more efficient scheme that has better economic results and is a more effective and dynamic solution.  With this Minister and this Department, we see little effort being made to work with anyone else.  We see no effort on consensus or savings delivery plans, and consultation is seen as a nuisance.  That all builds into an attitude typified by the "So what?" comment.

I remind everyone that we have an unspent social investment fund of £80 million in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).  Some £14 million has been wasted on the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), and there are many other examples of inefficient spending throughout the Assembly.  If we all worked together, as was originally envisaged in the Belfast Agreement, rather than taking the "deal or no deal" approach of the two main parties, we might be able to afford to get more from free school meals.  We can achieve that through the efficient use of departmental budgets or by working together rather than taking more money from successful schools, which seems to be the present plan.  It seems to punish the achievers and has started a virtual class war.  That is really what is behind the debate.

I see no difficulty in supporting the amendment because health, welfare and so many community matters are all part of the same equation.  That is why I call today for departmental measures to ensure that all Departments work together and end the silo approach.  This new approach need not be just at Assembly level; it should embrace and include councils.  It should also include Westminster and the present shake-up of the welfare system.  Many are doing that, but we need to do more to manipulate and amend it so that it benefits Northern Ireland.  That is how we should be exploring ways of reviewing free school meals.  I welcome the Minister's intention to review the matter, if that is still the case, and I really hope that he does.  It should be reviewed and reviewed as the Assembly goes on and on.

There are, as we heard from other Members, many working poor and many struggling to keep their head above the water financially, and we must never forget them.  If you read the documents that we have received, you will see that the Australians ask deeper questions than we do.  Maybe we should look at that.  We also see an American system based on a measurement of the poverty line.  Maybe we should look at that.  If we could adopt a similar measurement, we might be able to get free school meals and help to everyone who needs it.  I also welcome the extension to tax credit.

We hear continually that many do not claim free school meals, whether in rural communities or Protestant communities.  We continually put that to the Department, and, many times, it seems to ignore it by using its own statistics for its own means.  Maybe we should change the name of free school meals.  Maybe, as we have heard today about healthy eating, we should call them "healthy eating vouchers" or look at some other way of changing them so that everyone is attracted to and wants them.  We need to get that money to disadvantaged areas and schools.  We, as a party, have called for a pupil premium, and we still want that to happen. 

Going back to where I started, I repeat that we need to find more funds.  I have not had time in the debate to push for the need for accountability and monitoring to make sure that the money that we give through free school meals works.  We need better efficiency.  We need to be working better together: councils, the Assembly and Westminster.  We need to avoid the politics of "Ourselves Alone".

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

We support the motion.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I think that what we heard in the previous two contributions was a bit of a preview of next week's debate on the common funding formula.  I will not go there on this occasion.

The motion and amendment are so similar that you could hardly support one and not the other.  In fact, you could not put a proverbial cigarette paper between them.  The motion recognises the importance of free school meals entitlement; the amendment recognises the important role of nutrition in the educational attainment of children.  Who could argue?  I think that Mr Storey at least asked about the beneficial effects of nutrition to pupils.  I hope that, by now, he is reconciled to the fact that it is very beneficial.  A hungry child is not a happy child and will not learn or develop physically, emotionally or educationally as well as a child who is not hungry.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Yes.  Go ahead.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

We are not disputing that per se.  We are disputing the notion that using free school meals as the only tool in the toolbox — given all the stuff that we get from the Department, I would say that there are more tools than needed in Rathgael — is the best way to proceed.  Using them as a stand-alone measure is not the best way to proceed.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I do think that I will need it.  The Member is again straying into next week's debate.

I would like all children who are entitled to free school meals to take up the offer.  From the various stats, it appears that perhaps at least a quarter of those so entitled do not.  There are different theories about the reason for that.  I would have thought that, in a lot of cases, it is because mummy thinks that she can prepare a better meal than the school, and that is perfectly valid.  When it comes to healthy eating and so on, perhaps parents think that they can do better.

There is also a feeling that we heard expressed when we touched on this matter previously.  I do not like to use the word, but Protestant — it is in the statistics — parents of pupils in controlled schools are slightly less inclined to take up the offer.  I do not have an answer to that.  Is it a pride thing, or is it a preference?  I really do not know, but, given that everybody is agreed about the need to try to improve —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

No.  Given that everybody is agreed about the need to try to improve the performance of schools that cater for the Protestant working class, particularly Protestant working-class boys, I would have thought that we are all on the same page here.  I will give way to Mr Beggs.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member indicated that there is evidence of a lack of uptake, particularly in controlled schools.  Therefore, does he, as I do, have concerns from the point of view of an equality impact assessment if that single criteria is to be used for determining funding?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

He is drifting into next week's debate as well.  I am sticking to what is on the Order Paper.  I will have more to say about it next week, believe me.  That is a different issue.

I am glad to see the Minister's recent initiatives, particularly the one that extends into secondary school provision.  It gives some more allowance for pupils to have free school meals.  I know that they are small in number, but the independent schools are now to be included, which is good.

Mr Hazzard hinted at wondering how it would be if free school meals were universally available without any criteria or test.  He wondered what the uptake would be and how much it would cost.  It is an interesting notion, because I believe that, in Finland, which is the place in the world that is constantly held up as having the ultimate in education systems and in educational achievement and balance, everybody gets a free school meal if they want it, without any need to qualify for it.  Mr Rogers mentioned that working on Key Stage 1 might be the way to go.

Everybody else did this, so I will touch on the question of free school meals as an indicator to be used for other matters.  I know that Bristol University and other expert opinion have said that it is not a perfect system and that it is slightly imperfect.  When someone comes up with a better system, perhaps we can graduate towards that, but, at the moment, the current system is recognised as being the best that there is.  I will leave it at that, Mr Deputy Speaker.  We will support the amendment or the motion or both.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I will make the party's position very clear, because there seems to be a wee bit of confusion.  We are supporting not only the motion but the amendment.  Because we have questions and are critical of some aspects of free school meals, that does not mean that we are against the motion or the fact that people who are entitled to the provision should take it up.  I have with listened with interest to what everybody said about the point that you will not listen as well on an empty stomach.  The reverse of that is that, if you eat far too much in your free school meal, you might be a bit sleepy by the time that you get to the teacher, so we need to watch out for that one. 

I was looking at the figures on free school meals, and they seem to show some variance.  I am afraid that that is the engineer in me coming out — I am going into the dull figures.  There are some startling differences.  Last year, there was a discrepancy of almost 14% between the number of people who claimed free school meals in the primary sector and those who claimed in the secondary sector.  In secondary schools, the number claiming was 14% down from primary schools.  Huge questions need to be asked about that.  How come people who will claim it in a primary school will not claim it in a secondary school?  That is a strange figure, and I do not have an answer for why it is there. 

I will ask the Minister to get the Department to look at this year's figure, because the quoted figures are startling.  There is a 44% discrepancy between the two figures.  I assume that that is not correct, and I would not like to think that it is.  It comes back to whether there is a stigma attached to claiming free school meals.  No matter what way you look at the figures, it certainly looks as though there is some form of stigma once a child goes to a secondary school, and, for some reason, they are not claiming.  That is something that, hopefully, the Department and the boards could have a look at.  It should not be the case, but, going back to my school days, there was a stigma there, and a lot of people just did not bother claiming it because of the stigma attached to it.  Maybe that was more prevalent in the controlled school sector than it was in the maintained sector.  I do not have the answer to that one at all, but there are certainly issues there that need to be looked at.

We have been accused of straying into next week's debate.  I am going to use terminology that we are all very well aware of here — the two are inextricably linked, whether we like it or not.  That comes down to the fact that, time and time again, the Minister says that we should target the needs via free school meals.  That is an issue that I decided to have a closer look at.  I have a list of the 20 worst-performing schools in Northern Ireland.  They are the Department's figures, not mine.  I am not going to name any school, because I do not believe that it would be correct to do that.  When I compare the bottom 20 schools in Northern Ireland to their free school meal entitlement or take-up — the same percentages and the same Department giving us all of those figures — the remarkable thing is that, in 10 of those 20 schools, less than one third of pupils claim free school meals.  The other 10, quite correctly, have very high percentages claiming free school meals, so there is an issue of deprivation versus low performance. 

The further you go down that list — I have not gone beyond 20, but it contains the 35 worst-performing schools — the fascinating thing for me is that free school meal entitlement does not necessarily correspond to underperformance in a school.  That is why, as a party, we are against using free school meals to skew where finances or support will go to a school.  That list of the bottom 35 performing schools is what I hope that the Department and the Minister will target to try to improve, not some artificial measurement that does not get us to where we want to be.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin 1:45 pm, 16th September 2013

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I would first like to welcome the recent announcement from the Minister that those attending independent schools are now eligible to claim free school meals.  That move, as previously said, will see pupils from around 15 independent schools, right across the boards, getting the same entitlement as those pupils who attend grant-aided schools.  I would also like to acknowledge the Minister's announcement back in June that he would give £30 million to help low-income families.  From next year, that will also allow more than 15,000 secondary- and grammar-school children to claim free school meals, extending the criteria to those parents who are on low incomes.

We are all aware of the benefits of receiving a free school meal and a lot has been said about the nutritional value that enables pupils to concentrate, learn and play at school.  It has already been stated that there is a slight increase in the numbers receiving free school meals, but there is still a large proportion of parents not taking up their entitlements, leaving their children at a disadvantage.  Having spoken to parents and pupils prior to this debate, I believe, and it has been said, that there is still a stigma attached to claiming free school meals.  Schools and boards should work more closely with parents, working in tandem to confirm eligibility.  It is my view that the Department needs to address that by way of an advertising campaign to raise awareness, particularly with the proposed welfare reform and the new changes that are coming on board to the extension of free school meals in 2014.

I believe that schools should also do more within the school to implement ways of distributing free school meal tickets so that pupils do not feel stigmatised or stereotyped.  A lot has been said about that in the debate. 

I want to talk about school policies for allowing children to leave the school environs during midday mealtime.  A lot of us know from passing by schools in our constituencies that there are a lot of chip shops and chip vans on many school routes.  When you drive along the road at midday, you see a lot of children coming out of schools to go to those chip vans.  I believe that there should be a stricter policy in schools so that children stay and avail themselves of the nutritional, balanced meal that is provided.

I commend principals, boards of governors, canteen staff and chefs for providing nutritional, healthy, balanced food and drink throughout the school day for children.  However, I believe that schools can do a lot more to promote the health of our children and improve the quality of food in our schools.  The Education Committee has discussed and debated access to food that we believe should not be on school menus, such as fatty foods and ice pops.  Parents of schoolchildren should know whether the school that their child attends is applying nutrient-based standards so they can be sure that their child is getting a well-balanced midday meal.  I support the amendment in that respect. 

Families with one or more parent working and receiving a low income struggle when it comes to paying for school meals and, indeed, school uniforms.  The disparity in claiming for meals and uniforms has been talked about.  That is also something that the Department can address.  I will be interested to hear its findings on that. 

I am aware of low-income families who are paid monthly and, in certain cases, do not have the same access to finances towards the end of the month.  I know that most families are scrimping by to pay for school meals and maybe give a child an extra pound towards the price.  I am not aware of the actual cost of a school meal ticket and do not know whether that differs among schools.  I do not know whether you get it free or have to pay.  However, I hear young people say that, if they want to get something of nutritional value and a drink in school, it can be costly —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?  Her time is up.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

Schools need to look at that.  I will just quote —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Sorry.  The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I support the amendment and, hopefully, therefore, the motion as amended.  Some remarks were made by Mr Lunn that there is really no difference between the amendment and the motion.  I beg to differ.  Through the amendment, Mr Rogers has brought to the motion a wider view of the problem, and brought other issues into play.  There is no doubt that, in his speech, his experience before coming to the Assembly was brought to bear on the matter.  His professional background came through in his remarks. 

I have, at this stage, been a member of the Education Committee for only a couple of hours.  What has been said on what is a relatively narrow motion has all been very sane and sensible.  However, there is a need, as came through from a couple of Members who spoke, to ensure that those who are eligible for free school meals get the support to which they are entitled.  Whatever the reason for an embargo and the feeling that those children should not apply, and whether, as perceived by some, there is a stigma, we must find ways around that.  For the sake of our children's education, we must be assured that, when the entitlement is there, it is taken up.

We talk about school meals being a cost, but we need to ask whether school meals make a difference to pupils' learning ability.  If that is the case — there is evidence to suggest that it is — rather than seeing school meals as a cost, we should look at them as an investment in our schoolchildren's education to help them to be the best that they can possibly be.  That reflects the need for a change in attitude from our perspective so that cost is looked at as an investment that prepares our children and gives them the best possible chance.  To do that, we need to make sure that we can measure the outcomes, that those who are entitled to free school meals continue to get them and that those who are not receiving the free school meals to which they are entitled actually do so.

School meals play their part, but we also need to ensure that we have the best possible base for learning in the school environment.  All the indicators suggest that when you build a positive relationship between schools and parents, and when parents become part of the learning situation, together with pupils and schools, there is better achievement.  Whatever way we do that, we need to support parents in their involvement in schools and ensure that all entitlements are taken up, parents are involved and there is a rounded approach in building the right base for children.  I support the motion and the amendment.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)