Wales’ free school meal: A safety net for vulnerable students

Wales’ free school meal: A safety net for vulnerable students

A BBC News report in May said nearly a third of children in Wales were in poverty – the highest rate in the UK.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Save the Children reported that up to 31% Welsh children lived in poverty during 2019-2020, compared to 30% in England, and 24% in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The government was ramping up its previously planned effort to end child poverty by 2020, but to little avail – thanks to the ravaging impacts of the pandemic.

Over 200,000 children in Wales were already considered to be poor prior to COVID-19, and the majority of the population also had a relatively low income. Their earnings became even lower after the disease hit, while their debts in turn were increasing. Accessing basic essentials such as clothes, heaters and food has been even more difficult.

As each household was troubled with debts and expenses to the point they could barely afford enough food, something as simple as a free school meal could be a lifeline to these vulnerable children in Wales.

The situation prompted several campaigns in Wales advocating for free school meals as a way to reduce the financial burden for parents. Manchester United player Marcus Rashford was one of the people calling out for support, saying he wanted all children provided with free food even during a school break, or school closure due to the lockdown measures.

“No child in 2020 should be sat in a classroom worried about how they are going to access food during the holidays, and the impact that will have on their parents when matched with unemployment, ill health and, in some cases, personal loss,” he said.

Adam Johannes, founder of The Cardiff People’s Assembly, also urged the government to expand its free meal programs to ease poverty.

Although Wales has a free breakfast program for children, the already high poverty rates aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic made Johannes think that the government should launch more support, such as giving out free lunch.

“Quite a lot of people in Wales are in poverty, where that’s due to working part-time, being carers or being in low-paid jobs, there’s this layer of people who do often seek charitable assistance,” he said.

Johannes believes that supporting parents financially during a crisis like this would help a lot of children maintain their access to food and education. When children are healthy, they will have better focus, therefore leading to better academic achievement.

Good food fuels good learning

The campaign has gained traction and appeared to help nudge the Welsh government to move. In April 2020, it budgeted 33 million pounds to support free school meals in forms of cash, vouchers and meal boxes. Later, it added another 23 million pounds, raising the total budget to nearly 60 million pounds.

Each local administration in Wales will be in charge of allocating the budget, as it would know best what the local people actually needed.

A news report from WalesOnline in late June said the rate of children receiving a free school meal increased to more than one in five. From January 2020 to January 2021, there were 19,000 more students eligible for a free school meal, adding the total number to 105,000 or around 22.4% of all 468,000 school pupils.

Wales’ Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) in January last year found 85,731 pupils, or 18.3%, had access to free meals. In June 2020, when the pandemic started taking its toll, that number increased to 91,700 – a rise of 13%.

During 2002-2003, there were 87,022 students who received free school meals. That fell to 74,568 in 2017-2018, before beginning to increase in late 2020 when the government bolstered funding to the program, and it is likely to provide even more support in the future.

There were 14,602 students in Cardiff, or 28.3%, who got free meals in 2021. That increased from 2012 when a survey from Save the Children found 10,337 students, or 21%, had access to free food. 

Similarly, Flintshire saw 21.82% of its students eligible for free meals in 2021, compared to only 13% in 2012.

These numbers showed that government support is vital to help keep vulnerable or poor children from falling out of the education system, especially when their parents are bearing even more financial burdens due to the impact of the pandemic.

Professor Sally Holland of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales emphasized the necessity for the state to support its people during times like this.
“The financial hardship faced by some families as a result of the pandemic has intensified that challenge, and made it even more important that measures are taken to mitigate the impact of poverty on our most vulnerable children,” she said.



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