Unclaimed meals mean Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire schools miss out on millions of pounds

Mick Castle, cabinet member for schools and education. Picture: James Bass

Mick Castle, cabinet member for schools and education. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

Schools in our region are missing out on millions of pounds of government funding to help pupils from low-income families because their parents are not claiming free school meals they are entitled to.

The government's flagship pupil premium policy gives schools at least £900 per child who is eligible for a free school meal, but the money is only paid if the pupil actually claims the meals.

A new government report claims 2,300 pupils in Norfolk, 1,600 in Cambridgeshire and 3,500 in Suffolk are entitled to the meals but do not claim them, costing schools a total of at least £6.7 million.

The document said the counties had under-registration rates of 13pc, 15pc and 23pc respectively, compared to an average of 11pc in England, while some local authorities such as Rutland and Manchester had a 0pc under-registration rate.

Although the report is new, the figures date from earlier in 2013, and Norfolk County Council said its latest figures showed an under-registration rate of 14.5pc in October 2013.

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The Department for Education said eligible pupils are not automatically enrolled for the free meals because information about who is eligible is not held centrally, and Norfolk County Council said it does not have a comprehensive list by school or area to do targeted work.

However, as of summer 2012, Norwich had the highest proportion of Norfolk pupils eligible for free school meals, 23.5pc, followed by Great Yarmouth on 20.5pc and King's Lynn on 14.1pc.

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Mick Castle, cabinet member for education and schools, said: 'We would encourage everyone who is eligible to take-up free school meals to do so because of the nutritional and associated educational benefit. We also regularly remind families to apply even if they do not wish to take-up free meals as this attracts additional funding for schools, specifically for children whose families are at a financial disadvantage.'

He added that schools are working hard to improve uptake, and the number of families not recording their entitlement is below the regional average.

Suffolk County Council said it has significantly improved take up since the government data was gathered, and only 13pc of those eligible do not claim.

Lisa Chambers, cabinet member for education, skills and young people, said: 'In the last year, we've worked closely with schools to make this happen. We've simplified the process of applying which has made it less daunting for parents. The whole free school meals scheme is now much more discreet for both parents and pupils.'

But she added that the county still needed more people to claim their free school meals.

David Harty, cabinet member for education and learning at Cambridgeshire County Council, said it was working 'very hard' with schools, district councils and others to ensure everyone takes up their entitlement.

He added: 'While there used to be a stigma attached to having a free school meal, modern technology has helped to reduce this fear. A number of plans are now in place to help increase the numbers in the county as the benefits for the children and the school will be felt for years to come.'

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