PARENTS will be urged to continue to apply for free school meals even though lunches are to be provided without charge to every primary pupil so schools don’t miss out on funding.
Schools in Wales currently receive additional money through the Pupil Development Grant, and for schemes to help with costs such as uniforms, which is tied to the number on their rolls who are entitled to free school meals.
But the Labour Welsh Government began rolling out the flagship policy it agreed with Plaid Cymru to provide universal free school meals by starting with the youngest pupils in the foundation phase in September last year.
Councils are supposed to hit the target of providing every primary school pupil with a free school meal by 2024 and Monmouthshire County Council has said it is on track to achieve that by September this year.
The council’s chief officer for children and young people, Will McLean, said even though it will be preparing a meal for all 2,570 pupils in its 30 primary schools from September head teachers still need to get parents, whose children would be eligible under the old rules which only provided meals for those from homes with the lowest incomes, to sign up.
He told councillors: “Why that is so important and why it is still absolutely vital parents and families continue to make those applications is that that drives additional funding for those schools and for those learners.
“The family support, in terms of uniform and equipment, is also driven by that application. So it’s really important and for any of you who are governors, go back to your schools and make sure they know. It’s really important schools keep needing people to register (if eligible).”
Council staff who assist with benefits will also help families, who would have been entitled under the old system that limited free school meals to those entitled to certain benefits or with an income of less than £7,400 a year above the Universal Credit threshold, to apply.
The eligibility rules will still apply for pupils in secondary schools who need a free lunch as the universal free school meals are only being provided for primary pupils.
Eligibility for free school meals has also been used to assess how well pupils from the poorest backgrounds perform in school. Monmouthshire, where 17.3 per cent of pupils have been entitled to free dinners – against 27 per cent of children living in poverty locally – has been told, by inspectors Estyn, it must close the attainment gap between those eligible pupils and the others.
Mr McLean said eligibility for free schools meals has increased as a result of the economic impact of the Covid pandemic and ongoing financial pressures. He said: “Our schools have traditionally had very low levels of free school meals, especially in the rural areas, we’re now seeing numbers into the double digits.”
He said the council’s policies are intended for schools to work with communities on initiatives to help with the cost-of-living and reducing poverty as it wants to help children at home as well as at school.
While the Welsh Government no longer supports the publication of exam results by schools, which were previously presented to councillors, it it devising a formula which will award points by grades. A* grades will worth 56 and other grades will be worth six less points accordingly.
School scores will be based on their results in the three core subjects of English, maths and science and the school’s next six best qualifications.
Mr McLean said it is anticipated Monmouthshire’s four comprehensives “should be looking in excess of 400 points” and scores are expected to be shared with councillors in the autumn.
He also said schools have to be “acutely aware of the” challenge of poverty which is “far greater than the eligibility for free school meals” and schools need the “highest standards of expectation” while recognising not all pupils are at the same “starting point”.
He said Welsh Government teaching tools to help “the most disadvantaged” can also benefit all learners.
Gobion Fawr councillor Alistair Neill asked if the annual report produced by Mr McLean should have an additional section on resilience.
The Conservative said: “I grew up in poverty in Glasgow and one of the best gifts I had from my comprehensive education was the resilience developed and the knowledge where I was at that point didn’t define where I needed to be at any point in my life. I developed self-belief and aspiration.”
Mr McLean said he believes resilience is a “key need for all learners” and is evident due to the pandemic which “impacted everybody in different ways”.
He said while some pupils didn’t have access to computers needed for home learning others may have had less support than their peers if their parents were working. But he said he didn’t believe a dedicated section on resilience was needed in the report and said viewing it as an addition could mean it is “minimised” when there are financial pressures.
But he said it was important the education department “makes sure” teachers “never, ever underestimate” pupils and he said he always looks at Estyn reports for reassurance schools have “the highest expectations for learners”.
Work is also taking place with the council’s Mon Life leisure service to see how it can support pupils at risk of exclusion to “build their self-confidence”.