If you scoured the articles from some of Britain’s popular newspapers for their views on welfare , you could be forgiven for believing that welfare reform was justified, for no other reason than to curb the excesses of dependency, and to end an unfair benefits culture.

Without digressing into how such a discourse is employed as a hegemonic device, it is worth considering that the reality of the benefits culture is more complex.

Late last month, the Department for Education published a Research Report: Pupils not claiming free school meals.  The key findings from the research reveal that while 21% of children aged between 4-15 are entitled to free school meals (FSM), 18% of this age group are claiming this entitlement.  In other words, 14% of children who are entitled to FSM are not claiming FSM.  This is approximately 200,000 pupils.

Entitlement to FSM is based on receipt of specific benefits, however, families in receipt of these benefits have to register their entitlement through their child’s school or Local Authority.  The procedure for this registration varies between authorities and between schools.

Around a quarter of children entitled but not receiving FSM live in the South East.  In the North East there is a much lower non claimant rate, with Darlington, Hartlepool,  Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton in the Tees Valley appearing to have 100% of claimants registering.  This may be due to authority wide efforts to ensure maximum registration. For example, my post  from last year looked at Middlesbrough Council’s efforts to urge parents to claim their entitlement. However, the reasons for not claiming FSM are complex, with analysis in this DFE report suggesting that children living in a less deprived area or attending a school with a low rate of FSM are less likely to claim their entitlement to FSM. In neighbouring, relatively affluent North Yorkshire  for example, there is a  high level of under claiming for FSM.  More research is needed to further understand the reasons behind these patterns.

This issue of under-claiming is not just significant for the individual children, but impacts on the funding a school can receive in the form of the pupil premium. The pupil premium is additional funding given to schools as a way of addressing educational inequalities between children from families who are socio-economically deprived and those from more affluent families.    Social scientists continue to discuss the usefulness of FSM as a proxy for deprivation given that receipt is not automatic.   McMahon and Marsh (1999) writing for CPAG discussed lack of take-up, more recently Hobbs and Vignoles (2010), Thrupp and Lupton (2011) have all explored the issue of under-claiming.  Gorard (2012) does suggest that the distinction between “eligibility and take-up may have been eroded” (p. 1015).

The report, published by the DFE  indicates that in many places eligibility of FSM still does not mean claiming of FSM.  As a result, some schools won’t get the extra funding they are entitled too, the socio-economic barriers that some children face will be obscured by the relative affluence of those around them.  And, the tabloid press won’t launch a moral panic about the level of benefit under-claiming in this country.

Pupils not claiming free school meals is written Samaira Iniesta-Martinez and Helen Evans and published as a Department for Education Research Report.

References

Gorard, S (2012) ‘Who is eligible for free school meals? Characterising free school meals as a measure of disadvantage in England’, British Educational Research Journal, 38:6, 1003-1017

Hobbs, G and Vignoles, A (2010) ‘Is children’s free school meal ‘eligibility’ a good proxy for family income?’, British Educational Research Journal, 36:4, 673-690

McMahon, W. & Marsh, T. (1999) Filling the gap: free school meals, nutrition and poverty, London: Child Poverty Action Group

Thrupp, M; Lupton, R  (2011) ‘Variations on a middle class theme: English primary schools in socially advantaged contexts’, Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, 289-312

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