Free school meals are to be made available to qualifying children of secondary school age from next month, it was confirmed today (Thursday).
Primary and nursery school children from lower income families are already entitled but now the eligibility is to be extended to older children.
The announcement was made by Education Minister John O’Dowd, who says a healthy and nutritious school meal can increase concentration and have a positive impact on a child’s educational outcomes.
And he has encouraged all those families who qualify for free school meals to take up their entitlement.
Minister O’Dowd said: “The significance of free school meals must not be underestimated and should be seen in the context of my Department’s overarching goals – ‘to raise standards’ and ‘close the performance gap, increasing access and equality’.
“There are particular challenges faced by pupils from lower income backgrounds in accessing, participating in and benefiting from a formal education.
“In addition, a child that is hungry cannot concentrate in class and is likely to lag behind its peers if the issue is not addressed. We should not underestimate the impact this can have on children’s learning and development, on their educational attainment and ultimately on their lifetime opportunities.”
From September 2014, children from post-primary schools will be eligible for free school meals in the same way as those at primary or nursery.
This change allows an additional 15,000 pupils from low income households to benefit from free school meals.
Mr O’Dowd highlighted the benefits of free school meals and called on those deemed eligible to apply.
He said: “We must not underestimate the important contribution which a healthy, nutritionally balanced school meal can make to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, to learning and cognitive development and, in turn, to academic performance.
“Too many families are not accessing the support they are entitled to, I therefore urge parents who think they might be eligible to contact their Education and Library Board for advice.”