DfE U-turn on FE free meals policy puts top-ups back on menu

The Department for Education (DfE) today revealed a U-turn on its FE free meals policy, allowing providers to boost the £2.41 handout with funding from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund.

It had previously told FE colleges and independent learning providers — who from this academic year must offer FE free meals to qualifying disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-old learners — that other sources of funding could not be used to add to a learner’s FE free meal amount.

But guidance issued today, following an FE Week story earlier this month that highlighted how providers had hoped to boost the benefit to as much as £5 with other funding sources until the Education Funding Agency told them they couldn’t, has put FE free meal top-ups back on the menu.

The guidance states: “If an institution determines that it is necessary to enhance the £2.41 free meals funding rate, ie to provide a meal with a greater value, from the 16 to 19 bursary fund or other sources, they have the discretion to do so.”

A DfE spokesperson told FE Week: “There has been a change in the policy.” He further confirmed that it would be possible, for example, for a learner in receipt of the FE free meal £2.41 to be given a further 59p from other sources, including the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, to have a meal to the value of £3.

The change in policy, according to the DfE, had been “decided to give them [providers] more freedom to their budgets for what they want to use them for”.

“The 16-19 bursary is designed to help some of the most disadvantaged young people stay in education. Colleges have always been free to use this in ways that they think will help increase participation,” said the DfE.

“While the funding given to colleges for free meals should be sufficient, we recognise that there can be a range of different circumstances affecting individual colleges, so if an institution feels it is necessary to increase the funding they dedicate to free school meals, they are now free to do so.”

The guidance adds: “If institutions choose to enhance free meals funding from the 16 to 19 bursary fund, they must ensure that they continue to provide sufficient support from that scheme to support students facing the range of barriers to participation (the cost of transport, books, equipment etc). Free meals funding should not be enhanced to the detriment of these other needs.”

The DfE spokesperson added that providers could use more than £2.41 of bursary fund cash per learner to pay for meals for people not eligible for FE free meals.

He said previous information supplied by the DfE incorrectly stated that use of Bursary Fund cash in this way had to be limited to the same £2.41 FE free meals figure.