A report and investigation published today by community organising charity Citizens UK reveals that secondary school pupils entitled to free school meals lose out on £65 million a year because they’re unable to roll over their unused change. 

In schools across the UK if the student on free school meals does not use their allowance by the end of the day – because they are absent from school, attending a lunchtime club or they don’t spend the full amount – their credit is deducted and retained by the school meals providers (private companies, schools and local authorities). According to Citizens UK, this equates to around £65 million per year in secondary schools alone.

Citizens UK’s North East chapter (Tyne & Wear Citizens) has been working with pupils in several schools who first identified this as an issue, helping them challenge a shocking injustice in the way Free School Meals are delivered and building on research aimed at Poverty Proofing the School Day undertaken by us here at Children North East.

Just Change Campaign

"Children are going without"

The Just Change campaign calls for an equal treatment principle that pupils with free school meals should be entitled to the change from lunch money just like other students to avoid hunger and stigma, as well as a written commitment for action from catering providers and ring-fenced funding from central Government for free school meals to ensure all the money earmarked for free school meals children is spent on them.

Luke Bramhall, Children North East's School Research and Delivery Lead, said: “This is a national issue. From Brighton to Middlesbrough, from Manchester to Scunthorpe, Children North East has spoken to over 65,000 pupils in more than 180 schools across England as part of 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' which identifies barriers to equality of experience in education.

"Across the country we are told about how the money allocated to children on free school meals is taken off them at the end of the day- and that children are going without as a result.”

"We are being treated differently to people who pay for their school meals"

The pupils today launched a national campaign for ‘Just Change’ for free school meals and will be releasing a YouTube video appeal and letter writing campaign, saying that not having access their allowance makes them feel stigmatised and that if school caterers let them keep their change it would have a hugely positive impact on their ability to learn and participate in school life.

One Year 8 pupil campaigning for the system to be changed from Kenton School said: “This campaign is important to us because it allows us to express how we are being treated differently to people who pay for their school meals.

"Some of our friends said that if they could keep the change they would buy extra food for the mornings for example, if they can’t get breakfast at home. But because they can’t keep the change they can never do that.”

Two girls eating school dinners

"A hungry child can't concentrate"

Kath Wade, Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle and Just Change Action Team, Tyne & Wear Citizens, said: “It’s simply not right that this is happening. All it requires is a simple change to an IT system to ensure the change from lunch goes to those pupils who need it most.

"A hungry child can’t concentrate, a child that can’t concentrate can’t learn, and a child that can’t learn can’t reach their full potential. And isn’t that what we all want?”

Schools commit to changing system

Since Tyne & Wear Citizens launched the Just Change campaign, two schools have changed their school meals system and returned change to pupils, and three schools have committed to the change.

Maura Regan, CEO of the Carmel College Trust, which has changed the free school meals system in all three of its schools, said: “In truth we were blissfully ignorant of what was an unintended consequence [of the system].

"Because of that, I felt there was a moral imperative to act. It appeared that we were supporting pupils on free school meals, but in reality, we were stifling them and creating difficulties. Once you become aware of something like that it has to become a catalyst for change.”

Ms Regan estimates that a simple, low cost change to her schools I.T system has given back around £17,000 to pupils. She continued: “the bottom line is quite simply that the money wasn’t ours… the money belongs to the children.”

Read the full report