Free school meals for undocumented children in England: a response to the Department for Education

This week that more than 8 million pupils go back to school in England. Coram Children’s Legal Centre argues that children’s access to free school meals and schools’ access to funding for disadvantaged pupils should never hinge on immigration status.

In May 2018, in response to news coverage in The Guardian which stated that children are ‘denied free school meals because of parents’ immigration status’, the Department for Education published a news story on access to free school meals.

The news story contained the statement:

Free school meals are provided to all disadvantaged pupils who need them regardless of their nationality or immigration status.

However, this is not true. Undocumented children are children who require leave to remain in the UK but do not have it – it is possible to be undocumented even if you are born in the UK. These children are not entitled to free school meals, financial support for uniforms or help with transport to and from school. This lack of support can have serious ramifications with regard to children’s academic performance and integration, and negative consequences for the schools they attend.

Who is eligible?

All children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England can receive free school meals.

Beyond that, any child whose parents receive one of the following ‘qualifying benefits’ is eligible for free school meals:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Asylum support (under section 95)
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit – if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)

Asylum seekers receiving asylum support under section 95 are also eligible for free school meals.

Who is not eligible?

In practice, children of parents with leave to remain but with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) conditions attached are ineligible, because their parents are unable to claim any ‘qualifying benefits’. In these cases, even where their child is a British citizen, that child will not be eligible for free school meals, financial support for uniforms or help with transport costs, and the school is not paid the Pupil Premium on their behalf.

Parents who do not have leave to remain are also unable to claim qualifying benefits, meaning that their children, even where their child is a British citizen, are also ineligible for free school meals and other support.

What is the effect on schools?

Although some schools choose to fund meals for destitute migrant children without state funding to do so, this policy deprives schools of access to additional needs-based funding. A child’s formal receipt of free school meals is what dictates whether or not a school receives the ‘Pupil Premium’ for that child. The pupil premium is additional funding for publicly funded English schools, and is designed to help disadvantaged pupils of all abilities perform better, and to close the gap between them and their peers.

Children are children first, and migrants second, and should be treated as such by every part of the government and state.

To make sure that children are able to access and excel in education regardless of their background, and to make sure that schools are not penalised for supporting disadvantaged pupils, children receiving support from a local authority under the Children Act 1989 should be eligible for statutory support. In the longer term, to avoid discrimination, free school meals should be provided to all children in compulsory education.

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