London council poised to extend £1.5m free school meals with potential food vouchers for some pupils

School kids of no specific age eating lunch at a table
-Credit: (Image: PA Images)

A London council is poised to extend its free school meals programme into the 2024/25 academic year and pledged to make it permanent if City Hall does the same, a report has shown. A proposal by Westminster City Council to fund £1.56m worth of school meals is out for consultation with a decision expected after July 5.

Around £870k is expected go to nurseries in the borough while £694k will be handed to state funded schools to provide free school lunches for pupils in years 7 to 9. A report by the council found the programme is expected to cost around £2.9m, with City Hall expected to plug the remaining £1.3m.

The local authority has also pledged to make the programme permanent “for as long as the Greater London Authority’s (City Hall) offer is in place,” a council report reads. City Hall runs its own pan-London programme known as the Primary Free School Meal Offer, with funds from it contributing to the council's own programme.

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Mayor of London Sadiq Khan with children at a table during a visit to Torridon Primary School in south east London
Sadiq Khan's office is yet to confirm how many Westminster City schools will be eligible for free school meals funding -Credit:Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire

City Hall's scheme will receive funding until July 2025 and is expected to be extended “for subsequent years,” the same report documented. Sadiq Khan has not yet confirmed just how much Westminster schools will be entitled to but is expected to allocate funding based on £3 per pupil, per day, over 190 days, the council said.

According to Westminster City Council, around a quarter of households in the borough – approximately 32,000 – are vulnerable to rises in living costs. In September 2022, it declared a cost-of-living emergency saying the scale of the problem needed “urgent and substantial action” from the council and the government.

The council’s latest report read: “The impact on children and young people is a real concern, and there is evidence of families in Westminster finding themselves unable to cover the costs of necessities. Schools tell us that they are seeing significantly more families struggling, including those not eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), which is manifesting in what they can afford to put into a child’s lunchbox.”

According to a YouGov poll commissioned by City Hall, around one in six parents – 16per cent – of children between five and 11 years are going without essentials, including food, electricity or gas. More than one in three – 36pc – said they are buying less food and essentials.

Potential of food vouchers for some pupils

The report continued: “The guarantee that children will have access to at least one meal a day is expected to improve the health and wellbeing for those currently experiencing food insecurity – bringing benefits for children’s growth and development and educational attainment, as well as mental health benefits for their families due to reducing concerns about food insecurity.”

In January last year, the council began funding free school meals for all primary aged pupils in Westminster schools. That was later extended to all primary aged pupils attending state schools by the Mayor of London.

This year, the council is also considering issuing vouchers to SEND pupils, who were found least likely to use the free meal offer. According to the council, this was due to students being tube fed and some preferring packed lunches to help with consistency with meals due to their autism diagnosis.

The £3 per pupil figure represents a 35p increase in funding from the 2023/24 academic year. The council said its monitoring teams found the average cost per plate to be £2.79 with an average uptake of 83pc.

The council has also used a small contingency fund to support schools who did not receive City Hall funding. Westminster City Council will transfer the money to school at the start of each term and be based on data from the school census.

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