Free meals funding ‘another real-terms cut to bear’

Free meals funding increase still falls short of rising food costs

Free meals funding increase still falls short of rising food costs

Free meals funding for disadvantaged students will increase this August for the first time since the policy was introduced nine years ago. 

The Department for Education announced today that the rate per student per meal will increase by 5 per cent from £2.41 to £2.53. 

But with food inflation currently standing at 17.4 per cent, college leaders have warned this the new rate will still require cross-subsidy from other budgets. 

If the per-student per-meal rate had increased in line with the consumer price index, the measure of inflation for everyday goods and services, it would stand at £3.17. 

Colleges and providers face a “real terms cut” in free meal provision despite government plans to increase funding, a principal has warned.

Darren Hankey, principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education, said he “appreciated” an increase to the funding rate for free meals but warned the 5 per cent rise is “substantially below [food] inflation”, which according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) stood at 17.4 per cent in June.

“In essence, it’s another real-terms cut which colleges will have to bear,” Hankey said.

Colleges, independent learning providers (ITPs) and sixth-form colleges can fund free meals for disadvantaged students between 16 and 18. Funding is also available for disadvantaged 19-year-olds who started their studies before they turned 19.

The policy was extended to the further education sector in 2014-15 after it was available to school children for decades. Disadvantaged students are those who, or whose parents receive at least one benefit from the government.

Other than the rate rise, there were no other policy changes announced today.

However, providers will receive payments from the Department for Education in three batches next year, rather than two.

The announcement follows a year of skyrocketing inflation, particularly of food prices. In March, food price inflation reached its highest rate in more than 45 years, coming in at 19.2 per cent.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) said sixth form colleges “already tend to spend more per meal than is allocated by government” for free school meals and said this “will likely continue to be the case with the increased rate”. 

But he said sixth forms will “continue to pay whatever it costs to ensure a nutritious meal for young people, topping up government funding as necessary”.

“However, in the circumstances in which colleges operate, with funding allocations continuing to fall behind inflation, and with greater cost pressures stretching their already limited budgets, any increase, however small, will be a welcome step in the right direction.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said increased the free meals funding rate because it “recognises” the impact inflation is having on students and colleges.

“We are separately helping disadvantaged students by increasing the 16-19 bursary fund to over £152 million this academic year to support with the costs of books, equipment, and trips where needed,” they added.

“This is on top of the biggest increase in 16-19 funding in a decade – with an extra £1.6billion in 2024-25, compared to 21-22.”

The cost-of-living crisis has had a sharp impact on the further education sector as it struggled to deal with mounting costs across the board. Last month the all-party parliamentary group for students warned more students were falling victim to domestic abuse and criminal exploitation due to the cost of living crisis.

The APPG also warned more students were using transport bursaries to support their families and called for more students to be eligible for free meals funding.

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