Pupils are now being punished if their parents/carers fail to pay lunch bills.
Well-known Conservative supporter, and self-titled superhead, Katharine Birbalsingh is the headteacher of Michaela Community School, a free school in the London Borough of Brent. Ms Birbalsingh originally gained attention as the anonymous blogger To Miss With Love, in which she wrote about her experiences teaching at an inner-city secondary school. She then came to national prominence after she spoke at the 2010 Conservative Party conference in support of the party’s education and policies, criticising the state of the British education system. Ms Birbalsingh sent a letter home to parents/carers to inform them that if they did not pay their fines, then their children would be punished as a consequence.
Ms Birbalsingh hosts daily “family lunches” for her pupils, where children are not allowed to bring food from home, but instead eat hot meals at tables in groups of six and take on specific roles such as serving food, pouring water or setting the table.
Whilst the idea of pupils partaking in some of the duties during lunchtime is quite a pleasant one, punishing children whose parents/carers have not paid their lunch bill is particularly discriminatory.
What is normally used as punishment for pupils guilty of “serious misconduct”, or those who miss a detention, children with outstanding debt are being removed from lunch and placed in isolation.
Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said it was “inappropriate” to punish children for their parents’ failure to pay for lunches and added that it was “particularly discriminatory” to isolate them, a move she warned “could lead to pupils being stigmatised” (Freddie Whittaker, para 5).
“There could be a number of reasons why parents are unable to pay for lunches and the school should investigate these further before automatically isolating them and banning them from receiving a hot meal at lunch-time, particularly if it may be the only hot meal they receive all day,” she said.
The letter sent home to parents reads:
“The deadline for this term’s lunch payments was 1st June 106. You are now one week over due.
“You are currently £75 overdue. If this full amount is not received within this week your child will be placed into Lunch Isolation from Monday 13th June 2016.
“They will receive a sandwich and a piece of fruit only. They will spend the entire 60-minute period in lunch isolation.
“Only when the entire outstanding sum is paid in full will they be allowed into family lunch with their classmates.”
As you would expect, the letter has caused outrage, with the public taking to Twitter to voice their opinions.
Comments such as: “This is so cruel. As if school bullying isn’t challenging enough, they throw this into the mix!” and “Hope there has been a mistake – unforgivable to shame/punish students for issues with parents!” are just a few that have been voiced on the social media platform.
Dionne Kelly, a parent of a pupil at Michaela Community School, said: “I found the letter quite threatening. Isolating children for their parents not paying upfront is degrading. It’s embarrassing for poor families.” (Eleanor Harding and Warwick Mansell, para 10).
Ms Kelly has received the letter just two weeks after her son had started at school, she had not yet registered for free school meals, but was planning to try and claim the money back. The school charges meals at £2.50 a day, with payment required upfront. As a result of the letter, Ms Kelly’s son has now been moved to another school.
Sam Royston of the Children’s Society said: “No school should punish and potentially stigmatise a child because a parent has not paid for, or is unable to afford, school meals.
“Schools should be doing everything they can to support parents who may be struggling with the costs of feeding their children.” (Eleanor Harding and Warwick Mansell, para 18).
What makes this story even more shocking was the news last week that parents were skipping meals so they could feed their children.
A Trussell Trust report revealed that parents are struggling to pay for childcare and food during the Summer holidays, with 35 food banks in Wales peaking due to high-demand.
These struggles are not exclusive to Wales, as it was also reported that families living in Middlesbrough were feeling the squeeze over the Summer break.
Dominic Black, the vicar of North Ormseby in Middlesbrough, said: “We’ve noticed in the past few years, partly as a result of benefit changes and cuts, a huge increase in the number of families coming to us in the Summer saying they can’t manage. Most of these are working families.”
Mr Black estimated that 7 in 10 children in his area are entitled to free school meals. Local churches, supported by businesses and charities, will offer 5,000 meals over the Summer as part of holiday activity clubs.
The area has seen marked decline with the loss of heavy industry since the 1980s: “The most alarming statistics has been in child poverty, now reckoned to be at 60 percent in the neighbourhood,” said Mr Black (Harriet Sherwood, para 6).
This highlights the extent to which parents rely on school meals to feed their children, with some even willing to go without just to provide a hot meal. To reprimand a child because of a late payment, resulting in a rationed lunch is deplorable. Hopefully these tweets won’t fall on deaf ears, prompting a swift policy change from Ms Birbalsingh.
 Freddie Whittaker (2016) ‘Isolation of pupils with lunch debt ‘inappropriate’ but ‘rare’ say school leaders’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/isolation-of-pupils-with-lunch-debt-inappropriate-but-rare-say-school-leaders/> [Accessed: 02 August 2016]
 Eleanor Harding and Warwick Mansell (2016) ‘Superhead who claimed Britain’s education was broken puts pupils in detention at lunch and restricts food if their parents have failed to pay for school meals’, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3713583/Superhead-claimed-Britain-s-education-broken-puts-pupils-detention-lunch-restricts-food-parents-failed-pay-school-meals.html> [Accessed: 02 August 2016]
 Harriet Sherwood (2016) ‘Communities to provide free lunches for children during school holidays’, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/22/communities-church-provide-free-lunches-children-school-holidays-poverty-uk> [Accessed: 02 August 2016]