Free School Meals

Oral Answers to Questions – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 16th September 2013.

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Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 16th September 2013

6. asked the Minister of Education to detail the recent changes he has made to the free school meals entitlement, including the number of pupils who will benefit. (AQO 4551/11-15)

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

On 11 June 2013, I announced how I intend to take forward the recommendations from the independent review of the common funding formula.  The review includes a recommendation to adjust the eligibility criteria for free school meals, which I have accepted.  That will mean that, from September 2014, the same eligibility criteria for free school meals for primary and post-primary pupils will apply.  I am pleased to advise that that will benefit an estimated additional 15,000 children from lower-income families.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answer.  Will the Minister outline the expected benefits to schools from his recent decision to extend the criteria for free school meals entitlement?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member may be aware that we are having a debate in the Assembly about free school meals and the expansion of free school meals.  The proposal is that we expand it further to include more low-income families.  In principle, I have to say that I am very supportive of that.  My policy direction is not how it benefits schools; it is how it benefits the individual pupil.  However, to go back to the previous question, evidence shows that those schools with the highest concentration of social deprivation need the most financial support and financial interventions.  Those are my proposals on the way forward.  I will await the outcome of the common funding formula review before any decisions are made in that regard.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

Given that the Salisbury report appeared to indicate a failure in the Department's policies at targeting social need, will the Minister detail whether he will now advance my party's proposal for a pupil bonus scheme, similar to the one proposed by Salisbury, which is in operation in England?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I am not sure that Sir Bob Salisbury's report indicated that the Department had failed, though Sir Bob Salisbury is a very intelligent and articulate individual, and he will be able to speak on that matter himself. 

In relation to the bonus scheme proposed by the report, the money has to come from somewhere, and if one pupil gains, another school may lose.  I am proposing an open and transparent formula, which everyone can look at and can understand why a school or pupil receives the funding that they have received.  You can refer to it as a TSN bonus or a targeting social need bonus; they are the same thing.  I am not as interested in the title as the mechanisms and the effectiveness of the policy to help eradicate social deprivation.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Minister give any consideration to the provision of free school meals for all Key Stage 1 pupils?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I am happy to consider it.  As with all these things, costs always come into play, and we would have to look at the educational benefits to the individuals, but it is something that should be considered.