- Posted by: Joyce Watson MS
- Category: Feature
by Steffan Rhys, Western Mail
We must remove the stigma from free school meals, says Joyce Watson AM
JAMIE Oliver raised the issue of healthy school meals, but I want to make sure that we have stigma-free school meals in Wales.
Children who have to queue with “dinner tickets” for free school meals are marked out from a young age, yet investment in technology can protect our children’s dignity and benefit parents, schools and education planners.
As a member of the previous Assembly’s children and young people committee, I was part of a group that considered children’s quality of life, and we made many recommendations for how the Welsh Government might make the experience of growing up in Wales a safer and happier one.
One recommendation presents us with a real opportunity to alleviate the feelings of embarrassment, or even shame, that some children experience each school day – and which could deliver wider benefits to schools, pupils and parents.
For years, children who have had free school meals have used dinner tickets to buy their lunch and these are still used in many schools today.
At best, ticket systems are inefficient for schools to operate and at worst they promote segregation among pupils that can have a far-reaching bearing on a young person’s school life. Either way it’s out-dated and we should change it.
Leighton Andrews, our education minister, has actively encouraged local authorities to adopt cashless systems, and he has argued for the right of every pupil to access free school meals without fear of being stigmatised. In response to the follow-up inquiry into child poverty, the minister accepted the recommendation that the Welsh Government should guide local government on how to create stigma-free meal systems and announced such systems should be in place by September 2012.
But at present it is a very mixed picture – in Denbighshire, for example, all of the secondary schools use cashless systems whereas in Anglesey none of them do.
In Carmarthenshire, out of the 13 secondary schools in the county, five are cashless, two are going cashless this year and two more hope to introduce systems next year.
Where they have been introduced, biometric or swipe card systems have had a positive impact.
I recently spent lunchtime in Glan-y-Mor school in Burry Port, which was the first school in the county to introduce the technology seven years ago. I saw for myself how their system worked and spoke to pupils and staff about their experiences of using it. Everyone – canteen staff, teachers and pupils – said the system had improved their lunchtime.
In schools like Glan-y-Mor going cashless has ensured that pupils having free school meals cannot be identified, and bullying for dinner money has been reduced. It has ensured pupils can’t spend all their lunch money on snack food on the way into school and, by cutting queues, it gives them more time to eat and socialise with friends. It has also helped parents and pupils plan healthy diets – and as we know from Labour’s free school breakfast initiative, when children eat better they do better in class.
This is a crucial point because research by The School Trust suggests that the stigma often associated with free school meals, especially in schools where pupils entitled to it are in the minority, can influence the likelihood of parents registering for the scheme and of pupils taking up their entitlement – and if young people aren’t having the free dinner they are entitled to or are skipping lunch altogether because of a fear of being teased, that is a big failure.
The report Please Sir? Can We Have Some More? in 2009 stated: “Stigmatisation can act as a key emotive barrier inhibiting the take-up of the benefit and can significantly influence both the likelihood of parents registering children for FSM, if entitled, and eligible children taking their entitlement.”
Going cashless does come at a price. For secondary schools, depending on whether they introduce a biometric or a swipe card system and depending on the supplier, it typically costs between £15,000 and £30,000 to install and £2,000 a year to maintain. Charges are usually less for primary schools. However there would be an opportunity to reduce costs if instead of introducing the technology in a piecemeal, school-by-school way, we looked towards joint commissioning, especially if it were linked to other systems in the school like the library, registration or school transport.
Biometric systems are controversial – and must only ever be used with parents’ support. In Glan-y-Mor they operate both fingerprint technology and swipe cards in case parents object to the school having access to their child’s personal data, but the vast majority of pupils and parents have opted for biometric ID not least because it has removed the problem and expense of replacing lost cards.
Overall, the benefits of going cashless far outweigh the costs. By speeding up lunch services by up to three times; by increasing the take-up of free school meals; by making it easier for parents and pupils to keep track of what they’re eating; and by removing stigma and bullying, cashless systems have the potential to transform school meals in all Welsh schools.
As well as offering healthy school meals, we must offer stigma-free school meals.
Joyce Watson is AM for Mid and West Wales
Read More http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/06/21/drop-the-dinner-ticket-queues-so-free-school-meals-are-free-of-stigma-91466-28911292/#ixzz1PuBADYtq