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Make ‘adjustments’ to give disabled pupils free meals – DfE

Schools have been reminded they must make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure eligible disabled pupils can access their free school meals entitlement.

The Department for Education has also updated guidance to set out an expectation that councils “consider making equivalent food provision” available to children in out-of-school provision, following threats of legal action.

A group of families initiated judicial review proceedings after their children were denied free meals because they were too disabled to attend state schools.

These children are deemed to be in “education other than at school”, meaning they are in provision paid-for by their local authority because it is inappropriate for them to be in school.

In a letter to the claimants last November, DfE lawyers said it “may be a breach” of the European Convention on Human Rights” if children receiving state provided education but not in schools “are not provided with meals where such meals can be provided and consumed in conjunction with receiving the education”.

LAs told to ‘consider’ equivalent food provision

Today’s updated guidance states they “expect local authorities to consider making equivalent food provision for children who are receiving education other than at school” if they met two criteria.

Criteria one is that they would meet the benefits-related criteria for free meals if they were in a state school.

Criteria two is if the meals would be provided “in conjunction with education and would, in line with the aim of free school meal provision, be for the purpose of enabling the child to benefit fully from the education being provided”.

“Once this consideration has been made, local authorities should then assess the individual circumstances of the child to decide whether and how such provision can be made.”

Legal duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’

The government has also beefed up the guidance to remind schools of their duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children on their rolls. The duty already existed, but was not reflected in the guidance.

The updated document states there may be “specific instances where the individual needs of pupils on roll at a school restrict them from accessing meals”.

This may be the result of their disability, and if so schools have a duty to adjustments to prevent them “being put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with pupils who are not disabled”

This includes disabled pupils who are eligible for free school meals.

Schools are “best placed to determine the exact nature of a reasonable adjustment in relation to food provision, taking into account the individual circumstances of the child and their family, as well as schools’ obligations under the School Food Standards”.

Adjustments could include vouchers

The DfE also included in the guidance two examples. The first is of a child with Autism which results in “sensory processing difficulties leading to a restricted diet”.

“As a result, the child is unable to access free school meals which comply with the relevant food standards.”

In this case, having engaged with parents or carers and the child, the school could issue food vouchers so they can have a packed lunch prepared.

The other example is a child with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder who will “only eat a particular type of sandwich”.

In this case the school could determine that a “reasonable adjustment would be to provide the particular type of sandwich that the child eats on a daily basis so that the child doesn’t go hungry”.

‘A question of fairness’

The change has been welcomed by the disability charity Contact, which estimates more than 100,000 disabled children miss out on their free school meal entitlement.

Anna Bird, chief executive of disability charity Contact, said it was a “question of fairness and today the scales have tipped to a more equal position.

“The guidance makes clear that schools do have a duty to provide an alternative to disabled children who can’t access their free school meal in the regular way.”

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