DISADVANTAGED pupils in West Berkshire could be missing out on extra support at school owing to the perceived stigma of free school meals (FSM), it has been claimed.
Councillors met with the district’s educators last week to gain a better understanding of the pupil premium funding for disadvantaged pupils and the work being done to close the attainment gap between these pupils and their peers.
The funding is allocated to schools based on the number of children eligible for free school meals and aims to raise the attainment of pupils from a disadvantaged background.
However, when discussing the barriers to providing extra support for pupils, it was revealed that children are missing out because some parents, who would qualify for FSM for their children, choose not to inform schools of their situation.
Speaking at the meeting, leader of the Inclusion department at Little Heath School in Tilehurst Trudi Collins said: “Free school meals is still a taboo subject among parents. They don’t like to acknowledge it.
“One of the barriers is getting them to just acknowledge the issue.
“The problem is parents have got to apply for it themselves.
“We know there are many families who qualify for it, but don’t apply.
“But unless they come forward with that information we can’t do anything about it.”
“We want these children to be supported as early as possible.
“If we get the parents in right at the start then you’ve got them on board – if the parents don’t let us know who they are then there’s very little we can do.”
In a report prepared ahead of the meeting, council officers said there had been a “seismic shift” in the attention now paid to premium pupils who, the report points out, make up a small number of pupils in West Berkshire schools (only 286 in the year 11 cohort in 2016).
However, the report states the attainment gap is still too large and that more must be done, with the issue remaining a “priority improvement area” for the council.
Speaking to the NWN after the meeting, chairwoman of the overview and scrutiny commission Emma Webster urged parents and carers who qualify for FSM to let schools know.
“We need to make parents and guardians aware of the support available to their children so they can have the best chance of having an early start to their education,” she said.
“I was very pleased with the level of detail that all of the headteachers went into.
“I think that detailed discussion assisted members in a greater understanding, but also in how we can help make a difference.”