In just a few weeks voting will get underway in local elections. Aberlour children’s charity is calling on all parties and candidates standing for election to address the issue of school meal debt for struggling families and to prevent school hunger for children not eligible for free school meals.
In a country as rich as Scotland no child should ever go hungry.
Everyone can agree on that.
Sadly, we know that this is not true for tens of thousands of families across Scotland struggling to feed their children, often relying on foodbanks to do so.
Spiralling energy bills, rising food costs and increasing inflation have all led to a cost of living crisis for those on the lowest incomes.
But for families we work with at Aberlour it has already become a cost of living catastrophe.
Families we work with simply can’t absorb any further hike in living costs and household bills.
The Aberlour Urgent Assistance Fund provides direct financial support to families in financial crisis to help pay for basic and essential items.
In the last year we have given out nearly £1.5m in small grants to more than 3000 families across Scotland.
A very worrying picture has emerged of families trapped in poverty as a result of a cycle of debt to public bodies, such as local authorities, housing associations, DWP – and even schools.
Since the start of the pandemic our fund has provided financial support to more than 450 families experiencing problem debt owed to public bodies and who are locked in poverty as a result.
Debt, such as council tax debt, housing arrears and Universal Credit advance payments, that more and more families find impossible to pay.
In too many cases this is debt that just keeps growing because the household income barely meets the everyday costs of heating homes and feeding children.
Research Aberlour has commissioned from Heriot Watt University has shown that the issue of debt to local authorities includes a growing number of families who can’t afford to feed their children at school.
This is increasingly a problem for many struggling families who are not currently eligible for free school meals.
Our research has shown that income thresholds for free school meal eligibility have barely risen in the last twenty years, when they were first introduced.
In 2002 low income working families with an income of just over £13,000 were eligible for free school meals, but today that income threshold is a little more than £16,000.
However, adjusted for inflation, the income threshold from two decades ago would be the equivalent of around £22,000 in 2021.
This means that far fewer children are eligible for free school meals today than twenty years ago.
What is also true is that child poverty has steadily risen in that time.
Based on available data our research indicates that there is currently more than £1m in school meal debt owed by families across Scotland, but the true figure is likely much higher.
There is also a concerning and inconsistent picture of how individual schools and local authorities respond to families accruing school meal debt.
These debts are usually chased through local debt recovery practices before often being referred to external debt collection agencies and can take councils years to try and recover.
Automated cashless payment systems are now used by most local authorities for school costs, requiring parents to pay for their children’s school meals in advance.
The payment systems are often managed differently between different local authorities and even between individual schools.
Depending on how they are used these systems can allow debt to build up where a child in primary school who is not eligible for free school meals is given a school meal and the debt is added to their cashless account.
Most councils say they operate a ‘no child will go hungry’ policy in their schools.
But for pupils in secondary school this may require that a child will have to face the stigmatising experience of identifying themselves as having no money to then be given a voucher which they have to exchange for a meal.
Our research also revealed that some councils treat the provision of a school meal for children without money in their account as discretionary, which suggests some pupils may be refused a meal.
If this is happening in our schools then it is a clear breach of children’s human rights and a shocking admission, as we look towards the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) here in Scotland.
Most alarmingly what this evidence points to is the significant likelihood that secondary school pupils without any money in their school meal account are avoiding stigma, shame and debt, and instead are going hungry.
What is clear is that families are not accumulating these debts because they don’t want to pay for their children’s school meals, it is because they can’t afford to.
So we need to think differently and compassionately about how we respond to families who find themselves in these situations.
Local authorities need to stay true to their stated commitments to realising UNCRC and to #KeepThePromise in order to better support families who are struggling to feed their children
In just a few weeks voting will get underway in local elections and we believe there are actions all councillors and parties to can commit to, to achieve this.
Aberlour is calling on all parties and candidates standing for election to address the issue of school meal debt for struggling families and to prevent school hunger for children not eligible for free school meals.
Aberlour wants to see:
- A single school meal debt policy developed in partnership between CoSLA and local authorities for all schools across Scotland which ensures a consistent, non-stigmatising and rights-based approach to respond to families with school meal debt, with a guarantee that no child will go hungry;
- Any school meal debt accrued by any family that becomes eligible or registers late for free school meals to be automatically written off;
- CoSLA, local authorities and the Scottish Government work together to agree a debt amnesty for all outstanding school meal debt, as children move from primary to secondary school and as universal free school meal provision in primary schools is rolled out by the end of this parliament.
But we know this issue goes beyond what local authorities have the power to do on their own.
And so Aberlour is urging the Scottish Government to take action nationally to increase free school meal eligibility for low income families in Scotland.
We are calling on the Scottish Government to maximise eligibility for free school meals for low income working families to ensure more families receive this entitlement, to reduce financial hardship, help end school meal debt and reduce the likelihood of hunger in schools.
For both local and national government these are steps that can help meet Scotland’s ambition of ending child poverty.
We can and must make Scotland a country where no child ever goes hungry.
Read our research on school meal debt conducted by Professor Morag Treanor from the Institute of Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University here.