Equality between FE and schools has been a prominent aspect of the sector for many years – and a new battlefield has been drawn.

No Free Lunch? is a campaign being launched by the Association of Colleges (AoC) to address one of the sector’s key issues.

As it stands, the 16-18-year-olds from a disadvantaged background who study in school sixth forms receive free meals at lunchtimes – but if they were to choose to study at a FE college or a sixth form college, this benefit would not be available.

Because of the loss of the EMA, rising cost of travel and rising cost of food, students are being hit harder.”

This, according to the AoC, who say eligibility for free meals should be based on need, not on where you choose to study, is “clearly unfair” and must change.

In putting together their campaign, the AoC has found that 103,000 students are missing out on a free lunch each year – equating to 20 million lunches a year.

The AoC also found that there are three times as many students at colleges eligible for a free meal than at maintained school sixth forms, while colleges educate nearly double the number of 16-18 year olds compared to maintained school sixth forms.

Pirandeep Dhillon, public affairs officer at the AoC, said: “The aim of the campaign is for government to make a commitment to extend the provision for free meals to college students.”

She went on to add: “One of the reasons is the fundamental inequality of the current system.

“There are more students that are from a disadvantaged background who are learning in colleges then in a school sixth form; we estimate that there are 103,000 students who are currently missing out on free meals.

“Because of the loss of the EMA, rising cost of travel and rising cost of food, students are being hit harder.”

An important aspect of the campaign will be the cost of extending the provision to FE colleges and sixth forms.

Although it does not include the administration and capital costs, the AoC believe the investment needed to fund the provision is in the region of £38 million – a figure described as a “relatively small sum” by Ms Dhillon.

However, the AoC believe that by extending the right to free meals for college students aged 16-18 it would encourage participation of this age group in education and training.

This is key, Mrs Dhillon adds, as the government seeks 100 per cent participation.

Although the campaign is currently in its infancy, it has already achieved some initial success.

In just two weeks, an e-petition has attracted more than 1,200 signatures, while the AoC’s special twitter account (@AoC_Campaigns) is gathering pace.

The AoC also already has the support of its member colleges, with 79 per cent who responded to a survey in September agreeing that free meals in colleges for 16-18 year olds would encourage participation.

Over the coming weeks, the Association will be putting together case studies of hard up students who could benefit from free meals, while campaigners will also be urged to lobby their local MPs to join in the campaign.

Ms Dhillon also added: “We’ll also look at demographic trends; are there particular regions which are more affected than others?”

Follow the campaign by via the twitter feed @AoC_Campaigns or by using #nofreelunch

To sign the petition, visit http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/31069

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