School threatens mother with debt collectors over unpaid lunch bill

School threatens mother-of-four with debt collectors over £32 unpaid bill for her children’s daily canteen lunches

  • An unnamed woman said she was angered after receiving a letter from her children’s school
  • She admitted that she had found it difficult to keep up with payments for the meals, which work out at around £200 each month
  • The woman’s husband is working and so the family are not eligible for Universal Credit or free school meals
  • Her story comes as a report revealed that more than 35,000 pupils in the North-East living below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals
  • Children’s advocacy groups are calling for the government to extend free school meals to ensure no child goes hungry 

A school has threatened a mother-of-four with debt collectors over a £32 unpaid bill for her children’s daily canteen lunches.

The unnamed woman said she was angered by the letter from the school’s head office, admitting that she had found it difficult to keep up with payments.

She said she was told if she did not pay the money she owed, that the debt would be passed on, North News and Pictures reported.

‘I was fuming. I wrote them a strongly-worded letter pointing out that we are in the middle of a global crisis.

‘You know you owe it, but couldn’t they just wait until the end of the month when my husband gets paid?’

The woman told the outlet that the school’s headteacher later phoned to apologise.

‘She said she didn’t mean it to be like that, but it’s really distressing to get a letter saying that if you don’t pay, they’ll forward it to a debt collecting agency.’

A school has threatened a mother-of-four with debt collectors over a £32 unpaid bill for her children’s daily canteen lunches. The unnamed woman said she was angered by the letter from the school’s head office, admitting that she had found it difficult to keep up with payments [Stock image]

The woman, who has four children aged eight, nine, 12 and 16, said she had to spend around £200 each month on school meals, which works out at 13 per cent of the family budget.

‘We don’t qualify for Universal Credit because my husband works and so the children don’t get free school meals. We get by, but the dinners situation is quite expensive.

‘It would make a massive difference if the Government changed the rules on free school meals.

‘It would be one less thing to worry about.’

The woman said her youngest child was in year two during the coronavirus outbreak and would normally have qualified for free school meals then, but she did not even get vouchers.

‘Feeding four children during lockdown was expensive – they were just going backwards and forwards to the fridge.

‘With my husband being paid monthly, you owe, you owe, you owe.

‘Extending free school meals would just take the pressure off,’ she said.

How much should the free school meals really be worth? 

Free school meal allowances are usually £2.34 per pupil per day, an additional £3.50 per seven days has been added in lockdown, equalling £15.20 a week.

The Government has told schools to work with their school catering team or provider to make up the food parcels, especially if kitchens are open.

Unlike in the first lockdown, vouchers are considered only after every effort to provide the supply boxes have been exhausted.

The government guidance suggests ‘you can consider other local arrangements, which might include vouchers for local shops and supermarkets’.

School costs of providing the vouchers can then be reimbursed by the government to the amount of £15 per week.

A school catering source told MailOnline: ‘Staff haven’t experienced anything like this before. They are working through a pandemic to make the food boxes for the parents some don’t even collect them.

‘For those in school staff were expecting 120 children from the key worker parents and vulnerable children for free school meals still, 40 turned up.’

The mother’s story comes as a report revealed that more than 35,000 pupils in the North-East who live below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals under current legislation.

The new report, The Cost of Missing Lunchtime, reveals one in four children from poorer families in the region are not entitled to a free, nutritious daily meal at school.

The data also highlights another 4,000 North East pupils, living in families with no recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status, may also miss out if the temporary extension of school meals to these households is not made permanent.

Luke Bramhall, from Children North-East, which carried out the study with the Child Poverty Action Group and the North East Child Poverty Commission, said:

‘It is clearly not right that many thousands of primary and secondary pupils in our region are being deprived of that vital nutrition.

‘We believe the current eligibility threshold for free school meals is too low so we are calling on the Government to restore the previous eligibility threshold, which included all families on Universal Credit.

‘This should be extended to all those on equivalent benefits,’ Bramhall said, adding: ‘We want to see the temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to be made permanent for those households with no recourse to public funds.’

In 2013, the Government introduced a temporary measure, making all families in receipt of Universal Credit eligible for free school meals. 

This was designed to protect families from losing out on entitlements during the initial stages of the roll-out.

Since April 2018, families have had to have an income less than £7,400 to be eligible.

Children North East, CPAG and the NECPC say this has led to many pupils who are living in poverty falling through the free school meals net. 

The report says poorer children are not only missing out on nutrition, but are also being deprived of extra help in the classroom as free school meals take-up is directly linked to Pupil Premium funding.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of CPAG said: ‘We know that free school meals help struggling families to stay afloat, as well as improve the health and education outcomes of their children. 

‘But many across the North-East are missing out, exposing children to hardship.

‘Government must step up urgently and expand eligibility for free school meals to make sure no kid goes hungry.

‘Schools and local authorities can also play an important role by making sure families who are already eligible take up free school meals: this has benefits for eligible children but also increases school funding which helps all pupils.’

The three organisations have calculated that it would cost £38.1m to expand free school meals to all households in the North-East in receipt of

Universal Credit or equivalent benefits, on top of the current status quo.

Amanda Bailey, director of the NECPC, said this is cost effective: ‘Research shows that free school meals have a number of proven benefits and are an effective anti-child poverty measure.

Free school meals have existed for more than 100 years 

The origin of free school meals (FSM) stretches back to the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906 when local authorities were granted powers to provide food to the poorest children through local taxes. 

This system remained until the Second World War when in 1941 nutritional standards were drawn up, followed three years later with the 1944 Education Act mandating local authorities to hand out FSM to the poorest pupils.

In 1986, during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Social Security Act required local authorities to outsource the supply to private companies.

In 2013, a new, more rigorous set of foods standards was implemented. 

‘They can help boost children’s learning and attainment as well as supporting their health through providing a balanced meal each day.

‘Children also benefit from the social experience of sitting down together, eating the same food and sharing the dining hall experience. For families, free school meal entitlement can relieve pressures on household budgets and free up money for other living costs.

Expanding free school meals to more children can also help to tackle inequalities by decreasing the number of children in low income families who miss out, and it can reduce stigma associated with the entitlement.’

Recommendations in the report, which is being sent to North-East MPs, local authorities and schools, include that local authorities should review their free school meal policies, processes and practices to ensure they are maximising the number of families taking up their free school meal entitlement. 

Data suggests the current take-up rate of free school meals in the North East is 89 per cent (116,000 eligible pupils with only 103,000 claiming).

Authorities should also make information about free school meals easily accessible, and directly linked to Covid-response pages/other financial inclusion information on their websites.

Schools should identify and address any existing policies or practices that either prevent pupils taking up their free school meal entitlement or further disadvantage them. 

Local authorities and schools should offer child poverty training to school staff to help increase awareness of the issue and help schools identify practical ways they can increase support to families who might be struggling.

Neville Harrison, headteacher of St Bede’s in Lanchester, which was not the school which issued the letter to the struggling mother, said: ‘It is great that these organisations are keeping the free school meals debate in the public domain.

‘The more MPs, local authorities and schools can discuss this matter, the better the outcomes for the children and families in need.’ 

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