Fewer pupils receive free school meals despite austerity

The number of school pupils receiving free school meals, clothing grants or education maintenance allowances are in decline – despite all signs indicating a continuing need for help.

Figures released by Shetland Islands Council show the number of parents seeking assistance, which they are entitled to claim, has dropped to below the national average.

The figures have sparked concerns that some people may be holding back from seeking help for fear of being stigmatised.

Statistics tabled before this morning’s SIC education and families committee showed the number of secondary pupils getting free school meals was less than five per cent – about a third of the 15 per cent national average.

Similarly, just under seven per cent of primary pupils have been claiming free meals at school. That again is about a third of the national average for primary-aged youngsters and represents an all time low for the isles. Since January, eligibility for free school meals has included all children from primaries one to three.

Take up on clothing grants has dropped each year from a figure in 2010/11 of 459 to just 286 in 2014/15.

Meanwhile, demand for education maintenance allowance has fallen over the same period. A high of 147 is recorded for 2011/12, but that figure has since plummeted to a mere 55.

The figures were contained within a report on children’s services performance measures for the three months up to the end of June.

They come against a backdrop of continuing austerity and a growth in demand for food parcels.
Last month a new group, the Tackling Inequalities Commission, was established to by the Shetland Partnership to seek ways of identifying inequalities and finding ways to combat them.

The commission’s second meeting is due to be held on the 24th of this month.

Director of children’s services Helen Budge said there was no indication the need for help had dwindled, despite the drop in applications.

Speaking about clothing grants, she said some efforts had been made to contact previous applicants, but the uptake had remained low and people were still not picking up the grants.

“We’ve done what we feel we can do to advertise the fact these things are available, but we are continuing to see this fall,” Mrs Budge told members.

Michael Stout highlighted recent studies into child poverty which indicated a stigma had arisen which may have discouraged people from making applications, even though they were in genuine need.

Questioned by Peter Campbell, Mrs Budge agreed to check whether the amounts given in clothing grants had remained the same in the five years since the scheme was first established.

Mrs Budge also highlighted figures which showed a slight improvement in school attainment levels, although she stressed the figures were released before the appeal stage had concluded.

She said schools were settling in to teaching new higher qualifications.


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