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Enquire Blog

A young boy sits in a school dinner hall alone. He has a red school meal tray on the table with a bottle of water, packet of crisps and an apple visible. Photo by user Creatas on Freeimages.com

Supporting disabled children to access free school meals

New research from national charity Contact reveals a third of eligible children with a disability are not receiving their free school meals. Here, Donna Tomlin outlines the issue and the resources they have developed to help parent carers make sure their child doesn’t miss out.

Access to free school meals makes a huge difference to families, especially during a time of squeezed family budgets and a relentless rise in costs for households.  Currently, all pupils in Scotland are entitled to free school meals from Primary 1 to Primary 5 (which the Scottish Government hope to extend). Children in Primary 5 and above may still be entitled to free school meals if their parents or carers are on a low income. 

At Contact we surveyed 1,500 parents and carers across the UK and found a third of eligible disabled children are unable to access their free school meal. This was for a variety of reasons including because they may be in hospital or attending medical appointments, they can’t eat certain foods or are recovering from illness at home. By not receiving their free school meal entitlement, families are losing almost £600 a year of financial help.

Of those missing out:

  • 45% said it was because their child can’t eat due to dietary requirements or sensory processing difficulties
  • 22% said it was because their child is off school due to a long-term illness or medical condition
  • 15% said it was because their child can’t eat in the canteen due to sensory needs.

Over a quarter (28%) said they had never been able to access their free school meal at all.

Pressure on family budgets and wellbeing

As family budgets continue to be stretched, 85% of families told us that missing out on free school meals increased pressure on their weekly budgets. More than two thirds (67%) said they experienced more stress as a result whilst more than one in five (22%) experienced debt or had to borrow money because of their child’s lack of access to a free school meal. A similar percentage (21%) reported missing school meals made their child feel left out.

Legal entitlement in Scotland

The law is clear. All pupils from primary one to five are entitled to free school meals and eligible disabled children should not be missing out.

For 190 days of the year schools are the place where children eat their lunch and, for some, breakfast too.  Access to nutritious food has been proven to improve a child’s achievement rates and wellbeing with free school meal provision playing a key part in helping tackle child poverty. If disabled children are not accessing this, then this needs to be addressed.

Section 53 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 places a duty on the authority to provide or secure the provision of a school lunch, free of charge, to pupils in attendance at public schools and other educational establishments under the management of an education authority who are financially eligible or qualify under the Universal Free School Meals Policy in Scotland.

If an eligible child is registered at school and can’t access a free school meal on site, an alternative such as supermarket voucher or food parcel should be provided.  However, we are aware that many families are not being offered this provision. The Equality Act 2010 specifies a duty to make reasonable adjustments to a provision or practice if a person is at disadvantage due to their disability.  Disabled children are being discriminated against because the adjustments aren’t being made. This is unlawful.

Make sure your child doesn’t miss out

Contact and parents are running this campaign across the UK and encouraging families to get in touch with their child’s school, local authority, MPs and MSPs. Working with human rights lawyers, our resources clearly set out the law to provide parents and carers with clear information about what their child is legally entitled to.  

Families will be able to download our Scotland template letter which we know has been successfully used to secure entitlement. We want all of Scotland’s ‘bairns’ to grow up in a fair and equal society with access to healthy, nutritious food. Children should be supported to learn, grow and play, as stated in Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As part of this, we need to ensure that families with a right to school meals can access the alternative and hope through our resources and practical support we can secure better outcomes for families currently missing out.

Donna Tomlin is Contact’s Information Officer and Project Manager in Scotland

Find out more about Contact’s resources to support access to free school meals.

View and download Contact’s Scotland letter template.

If you would like more information on how Contact can support you to secure alternate provision of free school meals for your child, email Scotland.office@contact.org.uk

More information and resources

Enquire has a number of pages to help parents, carers and families with the right to support at school including Understanding my child’s rights to support and What the law says about additional support for learning.

The Scottish Government have a web page which outlines eligibility for School Meals School meals – mygov.scot

The Tackling Food Insecurity in Scottish School report for the Poverty and Inequality Commission (March 2021) highlights the role school meals can play in ensuring all children have access to healthy, nutritious food. It identifies good practice and learning in providing free school meals.

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