Monday, 4 February 2013

Feeding poor kids at college

by Mark Corney

An increasingly well-known anomaly in post-16 legislation is that free meals are available to students from poor families attending schools but not colleges. Come from a poor family and attend a school sixth form, academy or university technology college and the state will feed you. Go to a sixth form college, general FE college or specialist college and you will go hungry.
An excellent review by the Library of the House of Commons* suggests that 100,000 college students aged 16-19 miss out on a meal entitlement, at a cost according to the Association of Colleges of £38m. And yet ensuring that meal entitlements follow poor students rather than restricted to the type of institution they attend is not confined to 16-19 year olds.

At present, 3,000 pupils aged 14-15 are enrolled full-time at FE colleges. There is no legal entitlement to a free meal if they are from a poor background which is most likely to be the case. From this September, of course, 14-15 year olds can attend FE colleges on a full-time basis. The chances are many will be from poorer families and could be eligible for free school meals if they had opted to attend school rather than college.

Redistribution of public support for free meals between schools and colleges for 14 and 15 year olds is required just as the pupil premium for this age group must be shared out equitably. The education department has promised an announcement on the funding of free meals to 14 and 15 year olds attending FE colleges full-time shortly. We can but hope that the announcement covers 16 and 19 year olds from poor families as well.

In the past, education ministers have cited the issue of cost as the main barrier from extending free meals to students aged 16-19 from poor families attending FE colleges. But fairness dictates that either 16-19 year olds from poor families at school or college get a free meal or none of them do. Either both groups are fed or they both go hungry.

What is totally unacceptable is to give 16-19 year olds from poorer families attending school who tend to do A-levels a meal entitlement on the grounds that they could go to university. Fairness and social mobility must be about every 16-19 year old and not just a specific group of 16-19 year olds.

Mark Corney is policy adviser to CfL and writes in a personal capacity.

*Free schools meals for post-16 education, Library, House of Commons, 17th January 2013

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