Call to automatically enrol eligible Nottinghamshire families onto free school meals

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Nottinghamshire Council is to discuss shifting to an “opt-out” system for children and families accessing free school meals – with demand in Ashfield the highest.

Eligible families who have not applied for the service could become automatically enrolled under the opposition group plans.

However, the ruling Conservatives say the proposals may not work on a “practical level”, because the current system is led by Government criteria.

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New school census figures show there are 25,265 pupils known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals across Nottinghamshire’s schools, 22.1 per cent of the 114,497 children registered in Nottinghamshire schools up to Year 11.

Nottinghamshire Council is based at County Hall, West Bridgford.Nottinghamshire Council is based at County Hall, West Bridgford.
Nottinghamshire Council is based at County Hall, West Bridgford.

Ashfield is the area with the highest proportion of children using the service, at 5,283 children or 29.4 per cent of pupils.

The area with the lowest uptake is Rushcliffe, where 2,015 pupils, 11.2 per cent, claim the support.

But now the Independent Alliance is to call on the authority to take steps to increase these figures and find families who may need help.

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The group wants the council to automatically enrol children on the scheme using benefits data – currently families have to apply.

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A motion will be presented to the council in January saying there “may be children entitled to free school meals who do not claim them” and urging the authority to use benefits data to automatically enrol families on the scheme and implement a policy of ‘opting out’, so families get it until no longer needed.

Coun Francis Purdue-Horan, who is proposing the motion, said: “Free school meal claims are at their highest level as the cost-of-living crisis worsens.

“We believe even more will qualify, but don’t claim them.

“No child should go hungry and this is an entirely common sense move that will make a huge difference.”

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The ruling Conservatives say any move to increase uptake “would be a good thing”, but the motion may not be possible to enforce.

Coun Ben Bradley, council leader and Mansfield MP, said: “Increasing uptake for eligible families would be a good thing, but I don’t see how this would work on a practical level.

“We take these suggestions seriously and I’ll go away and look at it, but, at a glance, I don’t see how it’s practically possible, nor how it could be changed locally when it’s a national programme.”