Over 700 poorer pupils are not accessing free dinners

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Hundreds of poorer secondary school children from Londonderry aren’t getting the free school meals they’re entitled to with one local MLA saying it’s matter of concern.

DUP MLA Gary Middleton said it is concerning over 700 local pupils aren’t accessing school meals despite being entitled to them.

He made the comments after Education Minister John O’Dowd revealed that in 2014/15 3,651 pupils in Londonderry were entitled to free dinners but just 2,945 were accepting them.

Mr Middleton said: “It is concerning that there are still over 700 pupils in the Foyle constituency who are not accessing free school meals, even though they are entitled to them.

“There has been a lot of work done by the Education Department and schools to encourage pupils and parents who are entitled to free school meals to uptake of them.

“Clearly there are still many who are not availing of this. I would encourage parents and students to ensure that they are aware of the help which is available to them and to contact the Education department with any queries or via Gary Middleton MLA office on 02871346271.”

The issue is not confined to the city, however.

In East Londonderry, 1,958 pupils were entitled to free dinners but only 1,558 took them up.

In West Tyrone, the equivalent figures were 2,653 and 2,168.

Across Northern Ireland 37,236 secondary school pupils were entitled to free food but just 28,970 were accepting it.

The problem is not confined to secondary schools and grammar schools, however.

In August the Education Minister said not enough primary school pupils were taking up their entitlement either.

Last year 97,517 pupils were eligible for the free dinners, but almost 20 per cent did not take advantage of the service.

He said: “A school meal contributes to a child’s healthy balanced diet, their growth and development, their educational performance and their long-term health and well-being.

“However, too many families are not accessing the free school meals they are entitled to.”

He added: “A child who is hungry may have difficulty concentrating in class and therefore be more likely to fall behind their peers if the issue is not addressed.

“In contrast, eating a healthy school meal can improve a child’s concentration, their behaviour and ability to learn in class which will ultimately lead to improved educational outcomes.”

Mr O’Dowd urged working parents and guardians to check eligibility criteria with the Education Authority.