From this month, post-primary children will be eligible for free dinners in the same way as those at primary or nursery.
Education minister John O’Dowd says a healthy, nutritionally balanced school meal contributes to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, to learning and cognitive development. This, in turn, helps their academic performance.
Too many families are not accessing the support they are entitled to, however. Department of Education statistics show just more than 80 per cent of those entitled to free school meals (FSM) take them. FSM are provided to children whose parents receive benefits or whose family income is less than £16,190.
Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, says the impact of the extended FSM scheme will only be felt if the pupils take up the offer.
As a society, she says, the North prides itself that every child born should have the same opportunities as the next.
“It is not as simple as pouring money at the situation – or taking money from schools where pupils are achieving and giving it to those which aren’t,” she said.
“We need a sea-change, a cultural shift in society towards what equates to success in education, and indeed in life.
“Children from less affluent families need to believe that they can be just as successful in life as anyone else and teachers need the right support to deliver this message.”
More than one in five children – close to 16,000 pupils – who are eligible for FSM still do not avail of them.
Mr O’Dowd said the significance of FSM should be seen in the context of his department’s overarching goals – to raise standards and close the performance gap, increasing access and equality.
“There are particular challenges faced by pupils from lower income backgrounds in accessing, participating in and benefiting from a formal education,” he said.
“In addition, a child that is hungry cannot concentrate in class and is likely to lag behind its peers if the issue is not addressed.”