School in Southampton gets creative to fund free school meals

23 May 2024
Swaythling Primary School in Southampton offers free school meals for all children from families receiving universal credit. As part of our Two Cities campaign, we spoke to its Headteacher John Draper about why the school introduced this programme and how it became possible.

How did the idea of funding school meals start?  

Initially, it was the impact on the office staff that sparked the idea to provide free school meals (FSM) to students and support families. As we worked out the cost, we realised that providing FSM to all students would equate to the cost of a teacher and we could simply not afford that.  

So we considered the next best option to be expanding FSM to all families in receipt of universal credit but who do not qualify for FSM. To do this, we launched an afterschool childcare programme in response to a desperate need for extended childcare for working parents in our community. The small payment for the childcare programme has been enough to cover FSM for those children over the past year. The uptake of FSM among this group of children has been 100%, so there is clearly a serious need and demand in the community. The uptake of school lunches for families who have to pay out of pocket is only 35%, so we do see cost being a major barrier to uptake of a healthy school lunch.

Have you seen an impact since introducing this programme?  

It really has made for a more inclusive environment at school when children can enjoy a hot meal together. Attendance has also been improved among this group of children. The cost of a school meal comes out to be about £15 per student per week, which is actually a lot of money over a year. In my school, I have seen major benefits to families as well. For example, some families have been able to pursue higher education with this little bit of extra funding for their children.

What would it mean if all children at your primary school could access free school meals, as is happening in London?

While we are thrilled to be keeping this programme running, it is not a sustainable solution. It is amazing to consider the amount of administration required by our office staff to support the current system of means testing, collecting money and chasing up debts. They are constantly having to add up the number of meals needed, liaising with parents to check eligibility documentation, chasing up dinner money, banking dinner money, reconciling dinner money. It is a mentally straining job as well because they’re asking for money from parents who don’t have it and who often must prioritise this money on rent. School offices have become another branch of social care in many ways. My staff regularly send family referrals to food banks, provide them with vouchers for electricity meters and gas meters, secure their second-hand white goods, work with families through evictions, help families with finances, etc. It is mind-blowing, really.  

If you look at the history of school meals, they started after the recognition that a lack of access to food was preventing children from getting everything they could out of their learning day. While I am hugely supportive of the Mayor’s initiative to provide FSM to all primary students in London, it is completely unfair that children outside of the capital continue to miss out. There are children who come to school hungry every day, there is no pretending that this doesn’t exist and this really impacts their ability to learn. The introduction of universal free school meals would be a great leveller in schools and would make a huge difference to all families.

Four in 10 (38%) teachers we recently polled said that pupils in their class were regularly too hungry to learn, with this figure jumping to 63% in the poorest parts of the country. The government should support families and schools by offering free school meals to all children.  

Read more about what teachers across England think about expanding access to free school meals outside of London here.