350,000 children ‘will lose free school meals in welfare reform’

350,000 children ‘will lose free school meals in welfare reform’

The Guardian World News |by Randeep Ramesh

school meals

Free school lunches are the main meal of the day for many children, says the Children’s Society. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

More than 350,000 children will lose their free school meals under the government’s radical plans to reform welfare entitlement next year, an analysis by the Children’s Society has warned.

In a report entitled Fair and Square, the charity says the proposed universal credit system, which comes into force in October 2013, will stop paying for certain benefits if a household earns more than £7,500.

At present the welfare system compensates poor families with cash from the tax credit system.

The result is that 120,000 poorer families are likely lose free school meals, worth £367 a year, unless they dropped their earnings below the threshold of £7,500. This would mean parents having to cut the numbers of hours worked or take a pay cut to keep their benefits.

The charity says that although the universal credit, which is a single payment designed to replace a plethora of benefits, was supposed to simplify the current system it will end up replicating some of worst aspects of the old one.

“Because of how universal credit entitlement is structured– with high withdrawal rates of benefits when earning more or working longer hours – many of the families affected will have to earn far more before they recover the loss of free school meals.”

Parents would have to garner “unrealistic” pay rises before the loss of benefits could be recouped.

As an example, it says that a lone parent with three children earning just below £7,500 a year would need to get a pay rise of 60% or £4,500 to compensate for the loss of free school meals under the new benefit.

The report argues that the system does need reform as it estimates more than half of all schoolchildren living in poverty – 1.2 million – are missing out on free school meals. Another 700,000 are not entitled to free school meals at all.

However, it adds that universal credit, as currently envisaged, seems a step backward.

Free school meals provide vital financial support for low-income families, argues the charity. For almost a third of children, school lunch is their main meal of the day.

Elaine Hindal of the Children’s Society said: “If the government introduces a free school meals earnings threshold into the universal credit, then as many as 120,000 families could end up in the perverse situation where they are better off taking a pay cut, or working fewer hours. This could mean 350,000 children suffering as a result.

“It is exactly this kind of problem that universal credit set out to solve. The government can and must address this by extending free school meals to all families in receipt of universal credit.”

At the heart of the debate is a split in the coalition. Some ministers think universal credit would create a very complicated system that is very difficult to administer. To ensure that half of children in poverty get free school meals would cost an extra£1bn – galling at a time of fiscal restraint.

Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said “the government has shown a scant disregard for the welfare of some of the poorest children in England” and he would be considering how to tackle the issue as part of the party’s “policy review”.

The Department for Education said it would be consulting on the issue “later this year”.

Children’s minister Sarah Teather said: “We remain totally committed to continuing to provide free school meals to children from the poorest families.

“We are reforming welfare to get more people into jobs as that is the surest way of cutting poverty.

“The reforms mean we will have to think hard about the best way to decide who is eligible for FSM so they continue to be targeted at those who need them the most. No plans have yet been set and we will be consulting later this year about the best way forward.”

Benefits Cap Is Forcing My Pupils To Quit Heart Of London, Says Head

Benefits cap is forcing my pupils to quit heart of London, says head

The Guardian World News |by Daniel Boffey

St. Cuthbert with St. Matthias CE Primary School

St Cuthbert with St Matthias primary school, which faces losing up to 100 pupils as the new benefits cap is applied. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

A primary school in the country’s most affluent borough is making plans to cope with losing up to half its children in the wake of the benefits cap, which critics fear will make London unaffordable for thousands of families.

In the latest sign of the impact of the government’s benefits reforms, Stephen Boatright, the headteacher at St Cuthbert with St Matthias Church of England school in Kensington and Chelsea, said he was making “strategic plans” to deal with an exodus. The loss of up to 100 pupils from the poorest families would force him to cut staff numbers and deal with a huge change in culture, he said.

The school currently has children of 55 nationalities and dozens of different languages, but Boatright said St Cuthbert could be unrecognisable as wealthier children replaced the poorest.

The £500-a-week benefits cap, which is due to be implemented in 2013, is expected to leave around 130,000 families across the capital unable to pay their rent. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea will be particularly hit by the changes because of its high rents and lack of social housing.

Boatright said that children from six families had already moved to live as far away as Nottingham and Hull. He said schools in Enfield, north London, where the costs of private accommodation were lower, were already taking in huge numbers of children.

“In terms of a policy, it seems to us to be a slight bit of social engineering,” Boatright said. “It is removing children from the very heart of the city and they are going to be replaced by wealthier families and children. That makes our mix that much weaker. We don’t know how many families will be affected because we don’t know how many are in privately rented accommodation.

“But we do know that half of our children have free school meals. We know that social housing in the area is very limited, so we are making the assumption that some of our children whose parents don’t work will have to move, and some of our parents who do work will have to move because the rents in this area are outrageous.”

Kensington and Chelsea council has written to people in private accommodation whom it believes will be hit. More children from poorer families are expected to leave schools such as St Cuthbert in the coming months.

Boatright said: “It is a destruction of community because there is a strong Arabic-speaking community in this area, really good, fantastic parents, and the reason they moved to this area is so they could have community support. They will have to move to areas where that community support will not be available.”

St Cuthbert, which received a satisfactory rating in its latest Ofsted inspection last year, has its funding judged by the number of pupils it has in January. Boatright said he believed the impact would be felt in 2014.

Sam Royston of the Children’s Society said he expected the experience of St Cuthbert to be replicated across central London.“This demonstrates the reality of how children’s lives are going to be affected by a policy that will inevitably leave them as the victims. It is of great concern that some schools are already faced with having to plan for an exodus of children. The government’s own impact assessment indicates that approaching a quarter of a million children will be in families affected.”

London Councils, an umbrella organisation for the 33 London boroughs, commissioned independent research to examine how plans to reform housing benefit will affect the capital. Researchers looked at the impact of the universal credit cap (which will limit the total amount families can claim in benefits to £500 a week), as well as the changes to local housing allowance, which will reduce the amount of housing benefit available to private sector tenants.

The report, Does the Cap Fit?, by Navigant Consulting, estimated in November that more than 130,000 London households may be unable to pay their rent.

A spokeswoman for London Councils said: “London is facing a housing crisis, with an acute shortage of affordable accommodation for low-income households. The latest figures show that there are already 1,680 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation across London, and we expect this figure to rise.”

A spokesman for Kensington and Chelsea council said: “Private rented accommodation in the borough is among the most expensive in the country, so it is inevitable that changes to local housing allowance will have a greater impact in this borough than many other areas.”

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