Number of new students applying for free school meals in Hertfordshire up by 17 per cent

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The number of children applying to receive free school meals in Hertfordshire has increased – even though the number of families eligible to claim them has gone down.

According to data presented to county councillors on Wednesday (June 19), between the start of the school year in September 2018 and the end of March 2019, there were 4,200 new applications for free school meals.

That is 740 more than there were over the same period 12 months earlier.

In October a ‘topic group’ of county councillors scrutinised the take-up of free school meals across the county, as well as the impact eligibility changes linked to the roll-out of Universal Credit was likely to have.

And they called for action to be taken to encourage families to apply for free school meals – particularly during the Universal Credit transition period, after which eligibility would be reduced.

At a meeting of the Impact of Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday, councillors were told that the council’s free school meals fact sheet now  emphasised the ease and speed of the application process.

And they were told about the increase in the number of applications.

Labour councillor Roma Mills said it was “extremely encouraging” that there had been an increase. And she said it was “remarkable” to think that people who were eligible were not taking it up.

She also called for the option of applying by phone – as well as online – was made clearer.

Previously the topic group had also considered evidence relating to the importance of the lay-out of school dining areas.

And councillors were told guidance from public health would be shared with schools, in a bid to promote healthy eating – based on children’s reasons for having, or not having, school meals.

Free school meals are available to parents claiming a range of income-related benefits, including Income Support. Jobseekers Allowance, Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit.

Those claiming Universal Credit – with an annual earned income of £7,400 or less – are also eligible.

According to the county council’s fact sheet, any child who is found to be eligible for free school meals will remain eligible until March 2023.