Rotherham Councillors rally for universal free school meals

MORE than 4,500 children in Rotherham live in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals because of the restrictive rules.

Councillors here have backed national calls for hot dinners to be provided to every single pupil in the country, regardless of family income.

Some 11,390 children in Rotherham currently receive the free meals, but another 4,556 live in poverty but do not qualify because of the criteria requiring household income to be below £7,400.

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Cllr Rob Elliott tabled a motion at last week’s full council meeting which noted how having the meals helps pupils’ health, attendance and academic achievement.

He said: “We must make sure that every child has the nutrition they need to learn and work towards their potential during the school day. Not doing so undermines the efforts of the education workforce to tackle inequalities.  

“There’s no disputing the benefits of free school meals provided to those currently entitled. Excluding so many vulnerable children is a real barrier to learning and must be urgently addressed.”

Cllr Victoria Cusworth, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “While the financial rewards may be over the long-term, the impact for families and on children’s life chances would be immediate.  

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“It’s more important than ever that pro-active steps are taken to protect children's health and wellbeing. Expanding free school meals is a powerful way to achieve this.”

Cllr Emma Hoddinott, also Labour, referred to the increased demand at her local foodbank, saying: “These aren’t people who are sat on their backsides, who aren’t working. The vast majority of families have working parents. They are trying to make ends meet but with rising energy and food prices, they have nowhere to go.”

Labour’s Cllr Taiba Yasseen referred to the restrictive income threshold of £7,400, which has not been altered in recent years. She said: “If a parent works just 14 hours at national living wage, their children won’t be eligible.”

Cllr Tracey Wilson, independent, said she noticed on a recent school visit that quite a few youngsters were eligible but not signed up for free meals because of the attached stigma.  

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Cllr Aaron Barker went against his Conservative group to vote in favour of the motion, while ex-Tory leader Cllr Emily Barley said extending the provision outweighed her concern about universality.  

Cllr Greg Reynolds, Conservatives, said: “It seems to go against the Labour principle that those in the most need get the most help. I can’t understand why you want universality. Where people can perfectly afford to ensure their kids are eating properly, why should the nanny state insist that they have a free meal?”

Cllr Rachel Hughes, Labour, said: “My understanding is that people who are wealthy choose not to claim child benefit. Presumably the same could be true of free school meals.”

The motion passed, meaning RMBC will write to education secretary Gillian Keegan urging her to introduce free school meals for all primary school children.