I believe it is essential that all children have regular, healthy and balanced meals throughout the day to ensure they are able to thrive in the classroom and beyond. Being able to develop positive and healthy eating habits in childhood is so important as I appreciate these habits will stay with them throughout their lives.
Schools have a duty to provide nutritious, free meals to pupils that meet the eligibility criteria, including being a registered pupil of a state funded school. FSM provision should be made to eligible pupils either on the school premises or at any other place where education is being provided.
The Department for Education expects schools to act reasonably in ensuring that their food provision accounts for medical, dietary and cultural needs. The Department has published statutory guidance, which describes steps a school may take, including the establishment of individual healthcare plans which may include special diets. The Department has also published non-statutory guidance for schools to advise them generally on their duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils and to support them in doing so.
The standard food offering provided by schools will, of course, be suitable to the needs of many of these children. However, some pupils with additional needs may require special food provision or arrangements. Let me be very clear: all schools have duties under the Equality Act 2010 towards individual disabled children and young people, and they must make reasonable adjustments to prevent them being put at a substantial disadvantage. That means that a school cannot treat a pupil unfairly as a consequence of their disability.
For example, a school could let a pupil with sensory-processing issues go into the dinner hall before other pupils, or it could appropriately tailor the meal choices to the pupil’s particular needs. Schools do, of course, do those things and are best able to understand the individual children and the circumstances of their school.
Local authorities are funded to support children with special educational needs, including those who are unable to attend school on a long-term basis. The Department has published guidance to provide more information, which can be found at: Illness and your child's education - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). The Department continues to keep its guidance under review to ensure that FSM eligibility supports those who most need them.
The Department is updating its FSM guidance to make reference to the reasonable adjustments duty that is already set out in non-statutory guidance published by the Department elsewhere. It is doing this in order to heighten awareness about reasonable adjustments, in particular as it relates to meal provision among schools, local authorities and families to support local solutions. That should give parents clarity and something to point schools to when discussing their child’s needs.
Where parents have specific concerns that a school’s legal obligations regarding their child are not being met, those should be raised with the school in the first instance, and subsequently, as necessary, with the academy trust or local authority.
More generally, you may already be aware this Government has extended eligibility for free school meals more than any other. The Department for Education spends over £1 billion a year delivering free meals to the greatest ever proportion of school children - over a third, including through the Holiday Activities and Food programme and school breakfast clubs. That one in three compares with the one in six who were receiving a free school meal in 2010.