Free School Meals Entitlement

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:30 pm on 16th September 2013.

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Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP 1:30 pm, 16th September 2013

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.