The most in demand primary school in Tower Hamlets – the borough with the highest percentage of free school meal pupils in Britain – has only six out of its 120 pupils receiving free meals, ELL has discovered.
The percentage of children requiring free school meals at Canary Wharf College, a free school in the middle of the Isle of Dogs, is over ten times lower than the 52 per cent borough-wide average.
Charitable organisation, The Child Poverty Action Group, has responded to the findings and is calling upon Minister for Education Michael Gove to “urgently investigate” the situation.
The school, which sits close to both local authority housing estates and a number of private developments along the outer fringe of the Isle, is also unable to provide hot meals for its pupils. This runs contrary to the council’s recommendation that children are given ‘one hot nutritious meal a day’.
Instead the school gives every parent of a child who is eligible for free school meals £1.89 per day, to contribute towards a packed lunch which the parents must provide.
During the first two years after the school opened in 2011, there were no pupils who required free school meals. This is despite the borough having one of the highest indices for social deprivation in the country.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive for The Child Poverty Action Group, said: “In the ward that Canary Wharf College is in there are 38% of children below the poverty line. It is simply astonishing that a school in one of the poorest areas of the country has barely any pupils eligible for free school meals and raises serious questions about whether the school’s admission policies and practices are fair and being implemented properly.”
Garnham added: “Even if a child eligible for free school meals is enrolled at the school, the school’s food policy, it seems, would not provide him or her with a hot and healthy meal. This is out of step with both the needs of its local community and with government policy.”
Garnham called upon Michael Gove to “urgently investigate” the situation and “see if free school meal pupils had been unfairly excluded from admission to the school.”
The free school will open Canary Wharf College 2, in 2014 and has plans to create a third all-through primary and secondary school.
As a free school, Canary Wharf College’s main funding comes through the government. It also receives sponsorship from independent schools and donations from parents.
Canary Wharf College’s free school meal intake is far lower when compared with the 14 other primary schools in a one-mile radius.
Of these schools, 10 are categorised as having a ‘high level’ of free school meal admission numbers, with the remainder at ‘medium.’
The two schools within 400 meters of Canary Wharf College, Harbinger and St Lukes Church Primary, currently have free school meal intakes of 40.2 per cent and 45.9 per cent respectively.
Sarah Counter, Head teacher of Canary Wharf College, acknowledged the school’s free school meal intake was far below other schools in the area.
She said: “What you have to remember is that our school has only been open for six terms. If you as a parent were poor enough to need free school meals, would you send your child to a school that was a big risk? No I wouldn’t.”
“We have no choice, of course, of where the school goes. We are in a very poor area but the precise plot of land within 400 metres of us is ok and that could explain it.”
She added: “We are desperate to reach as large a number of free school meal students as possible. As the school grows and when our other school opens in 2014, I am sure we will have a higher proportion of free school meal students.”
Counter also said that the school currently has no room for a kitchen to provide hot meals. Nevertheless, she did not feel that her pupils are suffering as a result: “In my experience primary school children who have packed lunches are much better fed at this young age.”
“Remember we are only talking about only 5 meals out of 21 in a week and people have seemed to have lost sight of that.”
Child Poverty Action Group Chief Garnham responded to Counter: “This is out of step with both the needs of its local community and with government policy. The government has just taken an important decision that all infants in state schools will soon get a free hot meal for lunch every day. They have done so on the basis of firm evidence that a full hot and healthy school meal each day benefits not just a child’s health, but also their attainment.”
According to Counter, the packed lunch policy will also be implemented in the primary sections of Canary Wharf College 2 and the proposed third school.
In September, of this year Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman launched a £2.76 million scheme that ensured every reception and year one child in Tower Hamlets would receive at least “one hot nutritious meal a day.”
This is part of a wider national drive by the government and other organisations to improve the standard of school meals and the level of take up across the country, which include universal free school meals for all pupils in primary school from next September.
Commenting on the packed lunch policy, The Children’s Food Trust, a body with the aim of protecting every child’s right to eat better, said the system was “very unusual.”
According to them, only 0.2 per cent of schools in Britain are unable to provide hot school meals.
They said that some free schools that start in temporary buildings are unable to provide hot school lunches, but added that these schools usually provided at least a “grab and go sandwich policy.”
According to the Trust, “research shows that when children eat a good meal at lunchtime, they do better in afternoon lessons.”