The government has been accused of inconsistency over a campaign to extend free lunches to students in sixth-form and FE colleges.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, hit out after the government’s response to an e-petition that collected almost 10,300 signatures.

The Association of College’s No Free Lunch? campaign was prompted by disadvantaged students in school-based sixth forms getting free school lunches unlike their counterparts in other FE settings.

The government said ministers were “currently considering” the issue but that schools did not receive extra funding for their 16 to 18-year-old students other than as a “deprivation factor in their funding formulae”.

Mr Kewin said: “Last year the government said it could not extend free school meals to students in sixth-form and FE colleges because it could not afford to do so.”

In June last year, Nick Gibb [the then Minister of State] said he recognised the anomaly, but estimated that it would cost between £35m and £70m to correct.

Mr Kewin said the government had now “changed tack”, saying that it was only the “entitlement to a free meal” that was different for schools compared with colleges, as the Department for Education did not provide specific funding for free school meals.

“The message from government now seems to be ‘be careful what you wish for’ – if the entitlement is extended there will be no additional funding attached to it,” he said.

This put sixth-form colleges in a “difficult position” as the sector already faced the “deepest cut from the government’s reform of 16-19 funding”.

Pirandeep Dhillon, public affairs officer for AoC, said: “Funds consolidated in 2010 included the Dedicated School Grant that schools used to pay for free school meals, so there is a grant.”

“And schools subsidise disadvantaged sixth-formers through funds they receive for 11 to 16-year-olds. This is about equality and fairness between schools and colleges.”

Ms Dhillon echoed Mr Kewin’s assertions that  the government had sent “mixed messages”.

“But this response [from the government] is welcome as it is now considering the issue,” she said.

The AoC would negotiate with ministers, and expected some decisions after this year’s Budget, later this month.

“Getting over 10,000 signatures is a great achievement but there is clearly more to do,” she added. “We are really thankful to everyone that has supported us.”

Caption for featured image:

FE Minister Matthew Hancock was presented with a No Free Lunch? lolly at the AoC Annual Conference in November last year | Pictures by Nick Linford

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