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Questions raised over how schools are chosen for government meals scheme

A Sinn Féin TD says that although the announcement is welcome, the DEIS scheme is a blunt tool to identify disadvantage.

AN EXPANSION TO the School Meals Scheme was announced yesterday by the government – but how does the scheme work, and what’s actually being served to students?

Up to 245 schools will either join the programme or see their services expanded with around 47,000 pupils benefiting from school lunches or breakfasts.

It was launched by education minister Richard Bruton and welfare minister Leo Varadkar, who are both in contention for the Fine Gael leadership, incidentally.

Breaking that figure of €3 million down, from September to December:

  • €1.7 million will provide breakfast and lunch clubs in 65 DEIS schools, with a combined enrolment of around 12,000 children
  • €1.5 million will provide breakfasts in up to 180 non-DEIS schools benefiting around 35,000 children.

If the allocation of €3 million to give 47,000 students a meal for five days a week between September to December seems like too little, this statement by Sinn Féin TD Carol Nolan seems to suggest that it is:

“Currently, the school meals programme provides only 90% of the funding for school lunches in some circumstances and I am aware of schools that will run out of money before the school year for the programme.”

How were schools chosen?

shutterstock_203668399 The School Meals Scheme is voluntary and schools are not required to participate. Source: Shutterstock/Karen Grigoryan

The Department of Education said that in recent years they “prioritised DEIS schools when allocating resources under its School Meals Schemes”.

In relation to schools not participating in DEIS – the [government] are engaging on the details of non-DEIS schools to be offered schools meals to ensure that resources are most effectively matched to need.

Primary and post-primary schools are assessed to decide if they’re eligible for DEIS, or Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools.

The government does this by using the HP Index: a method of measuring the relative affluence or disadvantage of an area based on CSO statistics.

The HP Index involves three dimensions of affluence/disadvantage:

  • Demographic profile (age, education, population increase)
  • Social class composition (education level, employment sector, mean number of persons per room)
  • Labour market situation (percentage of unskilled workers, unemployment profile, one parent family profile).

But Carol Nolan said that the government’s criteria for deciding what’s a DEIS school doesn’t quite work:

“I am aware of a number of schools that cannot understand why they have not been included in the DEIS scheme, given the levels of disadvantage reported in their schools.

“I know a number of these schools have applied in recent years for funding for school meals and have been refused, as the funding was sufficient to primarily cover those with DEIS status only, meaning these schools have effectively lost out twice.”

What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_522408085 Source: Shutterstock/279photo Studio

The Department of Social Protection said that it was up to individual schools to decide what breakfasts to buy with the funding given, but gave the following examples:

  • Full canteen services, operated by either the school itself or outsourced to private catering firms
  • Purchase of prepared meals by the school from specialist school meals suppliers
  • Purchase of prepared meals by the school from local suppliers such as cafes, restaurants or delicatessens
  • Purchase and preparation of meals by school/group staff or volunteers
  • Purchase of food requiring no preparation from local shops or wholesalers.

An example they gave for breakfast was “cereal, toast, scone, fruit, yoghurt, milk, unsweetened juice: two items must be provided.”

Read: New schools plan ‘will reflect more diversity in 21st century Ireland’

Poll: Are school uniforms too expensive?

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