Charedi orthodox children missing out on free school meals

Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble and cabinet member for education, young people and children’s social care and Mayor Philip Glanville enjoy a school dinner at Mandeville primary school (a maintained school).

Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble and cabinet member for education, young people and children’s social care and Mayor Philip Glanville enjoy a school dinner at Mandeville primary school (a maintained school). Photograph: Julia Gregory. Free for use by partners of the BBC news wire service

Campaigners say more than 7,000 primary schoolchildren from Hackney’s Charedi orthodox community will miss out on the London-wide free school meal programme announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan which starts next month.

In February the Mayor of London announced a £135m package that “every primary schoolchild in London” would receive free school meals in this coming academic year to help with the cost-of-living crisis.

Overall, it will help 287,000 and is worth £440 per child.

The move was designed to help children who were not eligible for free school meals and the Greater London Authority (GLA) announced this week that it will help 6,140 Hackney pupils.

However, this excludes children at schools which are not maintained by local authorities, including independent schools which charge fees, such as the schools many Charedi children in Hackney attend.

Conservative leader councillor Michael Levy, who represents Springfield ward, said: “Not all independent schools are equal and parents sending their children to schools in Stamford Hill are not in the same income bracket as parents whose children are educated at Eton or Harrow, for example. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis this exclusion is a bitter pill to swallow.”

Motty Pinter, director of communal affairs at the Interlink Foundation, said excluding children from independent schools meant primary school pupils from the Charedi Orthodox community in Hackney were missing out.

He said 7,811, or 97 per cent, of Charedi primary school aged children in Hackney attend independent schools.

It would cost an estimated £3.4m to include those children in the London-wide fund.

Mr Pinter said: “The Mayor’s initiative is intended to benefit primary age pupils in London who are not currently eligible for free school meals.

“Charedi independent school children are amongst those most harshly impacted by the cost-of-living crisis. For example, the average Charedi household size is almost 2.5 times the UK average household size, and the cost of Kosher food is over two and a half times the cost of non-Kosher equivalents.”

He explained most Charedi independent schools ask for an average of £75 a week in voluntary fees and waive it for parents who cannot afford the fees, compared with an average weekly fee of £480 at private schools across London.

The schools are run as charities and do not depend on their income from fees alone.

Some people are unable to pay the fees and campaigners told the Greater London Authority some “live in larger than average-sized families and receive housing benefits and tax credits.”

Mr Pinter said: “I’ve had one family with nine children tell me ‘I’ve sent my child to school without a proper meal so many times.'”

He said some schools have been buying bread to feed children whose families are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

“I did a survey, and it was heart-breaking when I heard the response. No child should have just bread for their lunch.”

“It’s very upsetting.”

He added: “Every child should have a free school meal, at least one meal a day.”

“If the intention of this initiative is to ensure that ‘No child should go to school hungry’, it is obviously necessary that the initiative covers a sizable community which is disproportionately affected by the cost-of-living crisis. The effect of the blanket exclusion of independent schools from the Mayor’s initiative is that several thousand Charedi children in London will possibly continue to go to school hungry.”

The Interlink Foundation has challenged the Greater London Authority over its policy and pointed out that it is excluding children in need.

Mr Pinter said: “They are lumping us together with all fee-paying schools,” but said they are different from private schools charging high fees to more affluent families.

“It’s absolutely not acceptable to exclude our children.”

He added: “There is absolutely no reason for excluding any vulnerable child in London from a programme that was presented as both a response to the cost-of-living crisis and a health initiative.

All we ask for is parity for our children. The cohort of children attending Charedi schools is very similar to those attending state schools; these schools are not upper-class private schools with fees averaging upwards of £20,000. Every child should have access to the same healthy and nutritious meal at school, regardless of the school they attend.

“Ironically, an initiative introduced to alleviate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on London’s families and to ensure no child goes hungry in school is now excluding some of those who are most affected by these very circumstances.”

The GLA said there was no reliable data to assess the financial background of pupils at strictly Orthodox Jewish schools.

“It is therefore difficult to ascertain the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on Charedi children and how this differs from other children attending other independent schools, including children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who attend on means-tested scholarships.”

The Greater London Authority said it is providing other help, including extra cash for the Felix Project to provide meals six days a week, and funds for 7m meals during school holidays.

The GLA is also opening one of its Kitchen Social Hubs in Stamford Hill to cater for the needs of the Charedi community. The hubs provide food and activities for young people during the holidays.

A spokeswoman for the Mayor of London said: “In line with existing Government funding of meals, the Mayor’s programme will cover state-funded primary schools, special schools and pupil referral units.

She added: “Sadiq continues to do all he can to support Londoners of all backgrounds affected by the cost-of-living crisis, including funding more than 10m meals during school holidays and at weekends over the next year through a partnership with The Felix Project and Mayor’s Fund for London.”

Hackney Council, ward councillors and London Assembly member Sem Moema have been lobbying for extra funding to feed Hackney children from low-income families at independent schools.