Free school meal funds help pay for school trips too – but self-imposed stigma stops parents claiming

Welsh funds for school meals are being used to expand pupils’ education. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Each and every one of us define success in our own way. But in schools, it is mostly limited to a grading system, with pupils who achieve better marks considered to be more of a “success”. The barriers to this success are not just natural intelligence, or lack of hard work, however, they come from a variety of different places.

For our recently published study, we looked at how poverty and educational attainment are linked in rural Wales. We spoke to children, teachers and other key stakeholders to explore the problems that they experience and perceive. We also looked at national, regional and local plans and policies for combating poverty and increasing educational attainment in pupils.

Wales has the worst child poverty in the UK. One in three children aged up to 16 (of which there are approximately 200,000) are living in poverty. An estimated 90,000 of these live in severe poverty, and forecasts show that this is not set to improve.

Much evidence has been presented as to why pupils in Wales slip behind the academic success of those in other countries. Correlations are often drawn between poverty and education, and the need to reduce the gap between the aloof affluent, the authentically austere and the adversely poor. But for our study, we wanted to analyse things from a different angle, from the perceived, actual and expressed needs of pupils and teachers, as they applied policies that were designed to help schools overcome the barriers of poverty.

We turned our attention to free school meal funding. Welsh government money is given to schools to provide all qualifying children and/or young people between the ages of four and 18 with free school meals. In rural primary and secondary schools, rather than solely providing food, the funding is used by schools in diverse and sensitive ways to help pupils engage in essential curricular and extra-curricular activities that would otherwise be beyond their immediate needs. This means that all rural pupils in the schools can, for example, go to science and discovery centres on trips, without the immediate worry of affordability.

Some families are going out of their way to avoid claiming free school meals. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

However, another finding of our research was that parents were neither rightfully nor proudly claiming free school meals for their children. And there appears to be greater prevalence of this phenomena in rural (as opposed to urban) schools across Wales.

Many families in rural Wales are identified as JAM (“just about managing”), with two parents working full-time and long hours in low paying jobs. They understandably find it difficult to spend time with their children and give them beneficial educational experiences. But they are also less likely to claim free school meals, despite being eligible.

Stigma

The problem, we found, is that there is a stigma attached to free school meals that causes parents to abstain from claiming them. Rural pride – coupled with beliefs and fears that children in receipt of free school meals are obvious to other pupils, teachers, or that schools can influence the eligibility criteria – is limiting claims of the additional resources and support available.

Some even prefer to go far out of their way to source sustenance from food banks not located in their area of residence instead of claiming. This indicates that parents may experience limiting systemic psychological barriers, or have deeply ingrained beliefs associated with their ability, worth and values that perhaps were neither real nor accurate but more of a self-imposed socio-scholastic barrier for their children.

Since we published our research, the Welsh government has announced a further £90m for the Pupil Development Grant – the fund for school meals – which goes to all schools in Wales. Though welcome, there are evidently still issues that need to be addressed to ensure poverty holds back no child in Wales from achieving their best while in education.

Schools are acutely aware of, and addressing, the barriers, for example by creating online payment systems for all parents, which has the added benefit of removing the physical stigma that comes with issuing tickets for meals.

Removing the stigma altogether cannot be done by changing processes or politics alone, however. We as a society need to change how we see free school meal funding. A significant number of school age children in general experience socio-economic disadvantage of one form or another. Funds like the one in Wales are not an indicator of poverty, but rather, often a vital resource for ensuring that each and every child has access to the same educational experiences.