End Wales free school meal stigma, says Joyce Watson AM

Wales should put an end to the "stigma" children face for claiming free school meals, an assembly member claims.

Joyce Watson, Labour AM for Mid and West Wales, backs a fingerprint ID system of cashless payments to help poorer children.

She is due to launch a debate on the issue in the Senedd on Tuesday and says some pupils are going hungry to avoid being seen to claim free meals.

She says there is a mixed picture on the use of cashless payment systems.

Her office's research indicates that in Denbighshire, for example, all secondary schools use some sort of cashless system, whereas in Anglesey none do.

Most commonly, in schools where children still pay with cash for their dinners, pupils eligible for free meals are given tickets.

The AM believes this makes it easy for such children to be identified and put at risk of bullying.

She recommends rolling out a system by which children have accounts to pay for school dinners which can be topped up either by their parents or by the local authority if they qualify for school meals.

All pupils would then pay for their meals by a biometric reading of their fingerprint at the till without anyone knowing how their account was funded.

Ms Watson said: "68% is the average take up of free school meals where we have a system that identifies against a near 100% where we have a system that doesn't identify those who have free school meals and those who don't.

Sugar levels

She claimed that in schools without a cashless system there were "an awful lot of children simply going hungry" to avoid being seen to have free meals.

"[They] can't concentrate. Their sugar levels fall and their behaviour is also adversely affected by what's happening," she said.

Ms Watson intends to use her short debate during the assembly plenary to remind fellow AMs of a government commitment to roll out such cashless systems.

She said: "[Education Minister Leighton Andrews] did commit to rolling this out by September 2012.

"I want to know that that is happening. And I really think that this archaic practice of identifying children has to stop."

Addressing security concerns, Ms Watson said pupils' fingerprints were stored securely by the company that installed the biometric technology away from the school and could not be accessed by authorities.

One disincentive to move to a biometric system may be the cost, which the AM estimates at up to £30,000 for installation and £2,000 a year for maintenance.

However, Stephen Jones, head teacher of Ysgol Glan-y-Mor in Burry Port, Carmarthenshire, said its piloting of a biometric payment system over the last four years had delivered results.

He said it had cut the time pupils queued for lunches as well as removing any stigma attached to free school meals.

"The children like it," he said.

"It's almost a fun element to having their lunch, the fingerprints.

"It's much quicker so they're happy about that.

"The offshoot, I suppose, would be that parents can actually have computerised printouts of all the food and drink that their children consume and they can keep an eye on whether they're having a healthy diet or not."

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