A Dungiven teacher has described as ‘worrying’ the fact that a fifth of children entitled to free schools meals are not taking them.
Sandra Brown from Drumrane primary and President of the Ulster Teachers’ Union was responding to the latest statistics from the Department of Education which show that just over 80% of those entitled to free dinners took them – almost 1% fewer than last year.
“One of the cornerstones of the Education Minister’s work is to close the gap between the academic haves and have-nots which appears to correlate with the socio-economic gap – yet here we have even fewer children than last year taking free school meals,” she said.
“This would suggest that the system through which school meals are administered is not working and we need to find out why the uptake is not 100%. Perhaps we should ask the young people themselves for feedback on the issue.
“Perhaps children feel stigmatised by being labelled as eligible for free school meals. A survey from union colleagues in Wales revealed that children there would rather forego their lunch than be seen to be taking free school meals.
“We need to tackle this situation in a sensitive manner which enables children to avail of the help to which they’re entitled.
“This is a serious situation given the figures we have seen from the Department last year correlating children’s academic success with their entitlement to free school meals.
“These figures showed that 33.9% of year 12 free school meal pupils achieved five or more GCSEs (including equivalents) at grades A*-C, compared with 66.7% of their paying counterparts.
“As a society we would pride ourselves that every child born should have the same opportunities as the next. But this is patently not the case, as these stark statistics reveal.
“But it is not as simple as pouring money at the situation – or taking money from schools where pupils are achieving and giving it to those which aren’t, as the proposed new Common Funding Policy would suggest.
“We need a sea change, a cultural shift in society towards what equates to success in education, and indeed in life. Children from less affluent families need to believe that they can be just as successful in life as anyone else and teachers need the right support to deliver this message.”