Contact calls for free school meals vouchers as 1/3 eligible disabled children miss out

4 mins read

Monday 3 April 2023

Research carried out by Contact reveals that a third of eligible disabled children are unable to access their free school meal due to medical and sensory reasons.

As a result, families are missing out on the equivalent of £570 a year of financial help. This comes at a time when every penny counts, causing some families to get into debt, increasing stress and making children feel left out.

85% families feel pressure on weekly budgets

1,500 families with disabled children eligible for free school meals took part in our free school meals survey about. In total, 471 (33%) told us their children can’t access their free school meal for a variety of reasons:

  • 45% told us they 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 their child can’t eat in the canteen due to sensory needs.

85% of families said missing out on free school meals increased pressure on their weekly budgets. When asked about impact:

  • 67% experienced more stress as a result.
  • 22% got into debt or had to borrow money.
  • 21% reported it made their child feel left.

Of those children missing out, 28% have never been able to access their free school meal. 32% have not been able to access them for two or more years. Almost half (49%) of families are paying £20 a week providing meals or packed lunches to replace the free school meals their disabled child is entitled to.

Disabled children facing disadvantage and discrimination

Kirsty, mum to Tyler, 12, who is autistic and has a related mental health condition, said: “A small bit of free school meals funding can be an incredible lifeline for people in my situation, even more so with the cost of living crisis. I’m a full time carer to my son who is home 24/7. I did not choose for him to be out of school or to give up my career.

“It really highlights the disability discrimination that is happening on a daily basis. Tyler has not had a free school meal for around 130 weeks. This would add up to £1,950. This is a huge amount of money for a family and could have made a big difference over the last four years.”

“Many UK families with disabled children are having to provide a school lunch when it should be free. They are being unfairly disadvantaged and put at greater risk of experiencing food poverty.

“There is a drive to expand free school meals in Scotland, Wales and London, as they are known to improve a child’s achievement and wellbeing as well as help towards family finances. But there is a group of children ALREADY eligible who are missing out.

“That’s why we are campaigning alongside affected parents for schools and councils around the UK to offer an alternative, such as a supermarket voucher, so disabled youngsters have access just like their non-disabled friends.”

Una Summerson, Contact’s Head of Campaigns

Contact supports campaign for alternatives and reasonable adjustments

Our research found that some parents have successfully argued for a food voucher instead of a cooked meal in school. They used the law that says that schools should make reasonable adjustments for disabled people so that they don’t face disadvantage.

That’s why we’re calling for the government to update national guidance to make this clear to schools and councils.

Natalie Hay, parent campaigner, said: “When my son got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a result of Lyme disease, I had to give up work as a teacher. Despite being entitled to free school meals, my son never got them, apart from during lockdown. 

“When every child was learning from home during pandemic lockdowns, reasonable adjustments were made. Every child got help. When disabled children are learning from home or are unable to eat the school meal due to sensory or dietary needs, no reasonable adjustments are made. Barely any get help. This needs to change.”

“I set up an online campaign group, which now has 1500 parent carer members seeking free school meals for their eligible child. Some of these parents have two children with a disability and are on Universal Credit. Others are so busy caring for their child they do not have the time and energy to fight this discrimination.

Find out more about why Contact is supporting a parent-led campaign calling for food vouchers to be given to eligible disabled children currently missing out.