Increasing access to free school meals
People in the UK miss out £21 billion of unclaimed benefits every year. There are many reasons for this, such as lack of access or awareness. But an underlying fact is that it’s up to people to pursue claims themselves, rather than being allocated them automatically. North Lanarkshire commissioned us to address the large number of children who were entitled to free school meals but not registered.
We developed a new software: the Benefit Identifier to ensure that families that need support receive it as quickly as possible. The push rather than pull approach to distributing benefits has the potential to transform how councils serve their residents as well as create efficiencies.
Proactively supporting families to get what they’re entitled to
In response to this, North Lanarkshire obtained funding from The Innovation Fund – a collaboration between the Scottish Government and The Hunter Foundation “to foster social innovation that specifically tackle child poverty.”
Increasing access to free school meals helps lift families out of poverty by increasing the reach of benefits, reducing costs of living and ultimately increasing skills and qualifications by helping children be successful learners. As such, the project aligns to the measure framework and evaluation strategy designed by the Scottish Government.
We set out to first understand how to reduce the administrative burden on families so they can access them free school meals easily.
Understanding user experiences around school meals
We interviewed 23 staff members across two schools in North Lanarkshire: catering staff, janitors, classroom assistants, additional support needs staff, teachers, administrative staff and head teachers. We also shadowed the breakfast club and school lunches.
We found that teachers are wary of causing offence by broaching the subject. Head teachers do all they can to support those they feel need it but there’s no way to address any issues if a claim is denied.
We worked with 100 primary school pupils to understand their experiences around school meals in general, building trust with teachers by developing a lesson plan that could be delivered in the classroom. Children didn’t seem to experience stigma as adults assumed although they did feel embarrassed if a lack of funds on their charge cards was highlighted in front of their peers.
We undertook contextual interviews with families and carers, and heard of the difficulties they experience in applying for benefits and how much they value free school meals. The process also presented problems for those with literacy or language barriers.
Narrowing the project scope to maximise impact quickly
Although we researched the end-to-end journey from needing the free school meals to being entitled, registering, and actually eating the meal, the alpha focused on the registration phase.
A technical discovery reviewed the data councils held on free school meals, the processes to administer them and the systems that manage this process.
Public bodies hold all the data needed to reach out to families who are entitled to free school meals. Restrictive data-sharing agreements force the use of manual and complex processes which limit local authorities’ ability to analyse their data and increase their costs.
The process requires input from three separate systems used to manage education data, workflow and revenues and benefits information, none of which are easily able to accommodate automation.
Building a compelling business case and developing an alpha
There is a strong business case for councils to adopt a proactive approach to awarding benefits which would result in positive outcomes for both the public and the council.
It not only saves families time and money spent on food, clothes and childcare, but also helps schools with funding and creates efficiencies for councils, cleaning up their data and saving on manual processes. It would also ensure that the policy of using free school meals enrollment as an indicator of poverty would actually be accurate.
With the council and our partners, Urban Tide and Add Jam, we developed prototype software that identifies children who are entitled to free school meals and/or clothing grants but are not registered.
The core components of the benefits identifier
The prototype is an algorithm to clean and connect data up across three systems to identify families entitled free school meals. The software only processes data; it doesn’t store any.
The diagram below shows how the Benefit Identifier processes the data:
- Extract data from the education, revenues and benefits and customer contact systems
- Check their entitlement
- Matches children across systems to address data quality issues
- Produces a list of pupils who need to be registered
Designing clear communication to increase take up
We co-designed letters that would be sent out with families and the free school meals team, then tested them with 24 users. Each letter is tailored to the family’s situation to present them with only the information that’s relevant to them. They’re written in plain english in a way that encourages parents to return the forms that the council needs, but reduces unnecessary correspondence (e.g. when there is no change of circumstances).
Since adopting this approach, North Lanarkshire Council has seen an increase of 1,841 in the number of children who are registered for free school meals and/or clothing grant in 2018/19. The Scottish Government estimates that free school meals saves families around £400 per year and North Lanarkshire Council has set the clothing grant at £110 per child per year.
The increase represents an extra £1m benefit for families over 2 years.
The Benefit Identifier as it stands doesn’t yet catch all entitled pupils. For example, it misses pupils living and studying in different local authorities, therefore the figure is likely to be higher.
Productivity gains for the council
In-depth research needs to be conducted on the productivity gain that the Benefit Identifier brings to local authorities to quantify the full impact.
However, preliminary calculations have identified that the Benefit Identifier saves the North Lanarkshire Revenues and Benefits team 10-30 minutes per child adding up to 18 days a year.
Open source for wider reach and next steps
The code is open source and we are seeking to work with other councils to scale the benefit.
As our research spanned wider than developing the benefits identifier alone, we outlined a series of strategic recommendations to enable more people to benefit from state support.
- Roll out the benefit identifier out to all local authorities. It can be expanded to other benefits to help tackle the £21bn of unclaimed benefits every year.
- Local authorities need better systems to obtain and manage customer consent so that they can start the next step in service transformation. They also need to study the resulting productivity gains to monitor the return on investment.
- Continue the push towards expanding the free school meals eligibility criteria to all children who need free school meals.
- It is crucial that the UK Government considers legislative changes to give local authorities access to DWP data to enable them to award the benefits that families are entitled to.
We are finalising the publication of the report. In the meantime, email us at email@example.com with the subject “Free School Meals Report” to get an advance copy.