Extending free school meals to full-time 16-to-18 year old FE students is a popular move across the political spectrum. Mark Corney puts the case for this applying to part-time students too.
Everyone is claiming victory over the decision to extend “free meals” to poor 16-to-18 year olds studying at FE colleges.
Costing about £40m per year, this measure will create a level playing field with those staying on in school sixth forms or attending pupil referral units.
Labour MPs are saying they won it, even though Labour’s priority is to extend free childcare for working parents of three and four-year- olds at a cost of £800m, funded through a higher bank levy.
The Liberal Democrats are saying they won it, although the prize they were after is the extra £560m to fund free meals to all children of infant school age.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives agreed to both parts of the package as a quid pro quo for a tax allowance for married couples also likely to cost £600m.
It is a safe bet that DfE will limit free meals to full-time students”
No sooner had the announcement been made, however, FE experts were on social network sites asking how would the £600m free meals package be funded.
The details will have to wait until the Autumn Statement (usually made in early December) but presumably the Chancellor has concluded the country can afford it. The fiscal deficit between April to August this year is £3.8BN lower than a year ago, as higher tax receipts outweigh higher spending.
Furthermore, the deficit looks set to be less than the predicted £120bn for 2013/14.
If, therefore, free meals to poor 16 to 18-year- olds at colleges is funded from new money rather than cuts elsewhere, the measure will end a totally unjustifiable anomaly.
The facts speak for themselves.
Around 75,000 pupils in Year 11 are eligible and claim free school meals.
On leaving secondary education, however, only 20,000 continue to receive them because they stay on in school sixth forms or attend pupil referral units.
Neither the 30,000 at fe colleges nor the 7,500 at sixth form colleges receive free meals.
The remaining 18,000 do not receive them because they are either employed or not in education, employment ot training (Neet).
Extending free meals to 16 to 18-year-olds studying at college from households with income of less than £16,190 per year could mean 100,000 full-time college students receiving free lunches
Around 70,000 young people aged 16 to 17, however, study part-time. Nearly all of them study at college but only a small minority are employed.
From September 2015, the participation age will increase to the 18th birthday. Part-time study without a job of 20 hours or more does not count as participation under the legislation.
So it is a safe bet that Department for Education will limit free meals to full-time students.
Nonetheless, there are obvious problems with defining eligibility for free meals by type of institution or type of provision.
Surely, the Coalition wants colleges to offer non-employed traineeships to 16 and 17-year- olds?
If these young people come from poor households, they must have the right to a free lunch.
Otherwise, another injustice will creep into the system.
No doubt, the Coalition also wants independent providers to deliver traineeships.
Disenfranchising poor 16 to 17-year-olds on traineeships delivered by private providers from free meals would be scandalous.
Traineeships, we know, are not intended for the most disaffected 16 to 17-year-olds, but they are aimed at reducing the Neet category and those who cannot find a job with an apprenticeship.
They will certainly assist 16 to 17-year-olds from some of the poorest households in the country to access training.
More than 5 per cent of all young people eligible for free meals at the end of Year 11 have been Neet for at three months and a further 10 per cent have been so for two months. And past youth cohort studies have shown unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to have parents who are unemployed or in low paid jobs than those young people in full-time education.
Free meals should follow the learner rather than the institution or course and disadvantaged 16 and 17-year-olds on traineeships should be eligible for free meals irrespective of the provider.
Mark Corney is an independent policy consultant