A new study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) has found that around 300,000 out of 1.1 million children in the UK who qualify for FSM do not take them.
The research, Take-up of Free School Meals: Price effects and peer effects, found that there are two over-riding reasons.
In many schools lack of space means that children eating school dinners sit separately from those who bring packed lunches so pupils on FSM often have to sit apart from their friends.
The second factor is that some schools have cash payment systems and those entitled to FSM feel embarrassed at having to hand in vouchers instead.
The financial cost to parents if their children do not take up their FSM is around £400 a year per child. Schools themselves lose extra funds of £600 per child (rising to £900 from next year) from the government’s Pupil Premium scheme.
Researcher Angus Holford, from the University of Essex-based ISER, highlighted the fact that the Scottish government’s 2007/08 experiment to give FSM to all children between the ages of five and eight in areas of high deprivation raised take-up. So did anonymous payment schemes, where parents pre-registered to pay or to receive the payment online.
He explained: “Schools should let all classmates eat together, at the same time, to reduce any stigmatisation.
“Introducing anonymised payment schemes would also dramatically increase take-up. Government initiatives to increase take-up would be best targeted at year groups in the most deprived areas rather than at individuals, as children are obviously responsive to the choices made by their school friends.”
Claire Rick of the Children’s Food Trust added: “At a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, it’s never been so important to do everything we can to encourage them to register for free school meals if they qualify and to make sure that children then take up the meals once they’ve registered.
“Research shows that when children eat better, they do better in class, and for many children their school lunch can be the only proper meal they eat in a day.
“Strategies like allowing all children to eat together – regardless of the type of lunch they have – and making sure that children having free school meals can’t be identified as such, are good starting points for any school wanting to work on this.”