Schools in a London borough will be £1.2 million better-off next year after their council trialled an “opt-out” exercise for free school meals that it estimates cost just £800.
And a second council has raised £84,000, prompting fresh calls for a system of auto-enrolment for all eligible pupils.
Lewisham in south London identified more than 500 eligible families through data analysis across its education, IT, revenues, benefits and communications teams.
It then informed parents it would apply on their behalf unless they opted out.
The onus is usually on families to apply to their local authority. Although schools and councils often encourage parents to enrol, they do not have access to full eligibility data.
Lewisham will now receive a massive £1.2 million extra pupil premium funding in 2024-25.
Pinaki Ghoshal, the council’s executive director for children and young people, said it was a “fantastic outcome for not just our schools but hundreds of families in the borough”.
“This extra £1.2 million will provide not only a healthy nutritious meal for hundreds more children every day, but will also help fund extra staffing, equipment and support in the schools that support those families.”
The Local Government Association has repeatedly called for auto-enrolment, which it said would benefit 215,000 extra pupils. This would likely amount to at least £268 million in extra funding for schools.
At the time, Shaun Davies, chair of the LGA’s resources board, said that “streamlining and removing the red tape in the applications process, so that councils get given the information they need, is vital if we are to ensure no child misses out on a healthy meal”.
Automatic enrolment was also recommended by Henry Dimbleby in the national food strategy.
It stated that the government “has data on which families receive benefits that qualify them for FSMs, but this is not shared with schools”.
The government had said auto-enrolment was “unviable for reasons of data protection”. But the Dimbleby report added: “It cannot be right to let paperwork stand between a child and a hot meal.”
Lewisham’s scheme was in-part prompted by fears eligible families would not apply because of the extension of universal free school meals to all primary children in London.
Officials feared eligible families “would not understand the need” to apply if their child already received free meals via the expansion scheme.
The opt-out scheme, which a spokesperson said had been a “huge success”, will now be extended to other services.
The council estimated the exercise cost £800 for postage parents, although this did exclude “indirect” staff costs that have not been calculated.
Based on the postage costs alone, the council said it achieved a cost benefit of £1,500 for every £1 spent.
Lewisham said several other councils had run similar schemes, and that it was encouraging other town halls to follow suit.
“It requires some collaborative teamwork and, of course, the extra workload across a number of services. But the results speak for themselves.”
As part of its wider school food strategy, Wandsworth found 67 children who were eligible for but not claiming meals.
Schools will get an extra £84,000 a year in pupil premium funding as a result. Pupils also got an extra £8,040 of summer food vouchers and £3,500 of help with uniforms.
Wandsworth said the process was “lengthy and involves a number of teams”, but was an “incredibly worthwhile piece of work”.
The council will now promote the approach to London and national administrations, and recommended government set an “ambitious timeline and process for the introduction of a new national auto-enrolment system by 2025”.
Ministers should also work to agree how benefits data could be accessed and used by councils for opt-out mechanisms, and commission an “up-to-date FSM registration rates dataset so that a current assessment of under registration rates can be reviewed”.