Poorer parents are being let down by some “short-sighted” schools that are encouraging them to sign up for free dinners to gain extra Government funding, campaigners suggested today.
The School Food Trust (SFT) is raising concerns that some schools in England are asking eligible parents to sign up for dinners they do not intend to take in order to boost the amount of money they can get under the new pupil premium.
SFT chief executive Judy Hargadon warned that schools are being "short-sighted" and said the Government was sending a "confusing" message on the importance of free dinners.
The pupil premium, a key initiative for the coalition Government, is extra funding attached to disadvantaged children, following them as they move schools.
It is given to pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) - a measure of poverty.
But a notice on the Government's directgov website says: "If your child is eligible for free school meals, it's worth registering them even if they're not going to have the school lunch.
"This is because schools receive a pupil premium - an extra payment for each eligible child which they can spend on useful services."
It also says: "Registering for free school meals doesn't mean your child will have to eat the school lunch - there are other benefits."
Ms Hargadon said: "I'm delighted about the pupil premium itself. The idea that you give additional funding to schools that have got children that have more need than others is a brilliant idea.
"We are, and have been, encouraging schools to sign pupils up to free school meals so they get the meals, so we are very concerned when we come across examples of schools saying 'you don't have to eat the meals'.
"That indicates to us that they are not registering the importance of children getting these meals."
For some children, a school dinner is their only, or main meal of the day, Ms Hargadon said, adding that the Trust had done a lot of work with schools to overcome parents' concerns about free meals, such as it stigmatising their child.
"I can't see why you should encourage people to sign up for something and then not take it," she said.
"It's short-sighted of schools."
Ms Hargadon said she did not think these schools were "trying to be bad" but were not thinking about what they are doing.
"They're losing an opportunity that would be brilliant, not only will they meet the pupil premium aspiration, and it's a lot of money for a school, they will be getting more attentive pupils in the afternoon, pupils who are fit to learn, and they will be helping children in their general wellbeing."
She added: "It's a very confusing message for people.
"The Government has been very supportive of FSM, they commissioned us to carry on doing lots of work on it. To do this, I think it's a confusing message and perhaps doesn't help the schools that are doing this."
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: "We want every child eligible for free school meals to sign up for them - so that pupils benefit from a healthy school lunch and schools receive all the pupil premium funding they need to support them."