Denial of free school meals to 100,000 disadvantaged young people attending college, is grossly discriminatory, as their counterparts attending school continue to benefit writes David Blunkett MP.
There are times when politicians can have a genuine argument about what constitutes 'fairness'.
When, however, over 100,000 young people are denied provision which is available to the rest, and those 100,00 plus are some of the most disadvantaged young people in the country, any argument that the system is fair doesn't stand up to scrutiny for a single moment.
That is the situation with young people across England who attend sixth form colleges and 16-18 courses in further education.
The issue is free meals. All young people aged 16-18 who simply stay on in a school that has a sixth form continue to be entitled to free school meals.
All those who choose courses in sixth form colleges or further education, are denied the same provision.
Given that the number of those from deprived backgrounds is getting on for 50 per cent higher in further education and sixth form colleges than those continuing in schools with a sixth form, the situation is not simply inequitable, it is grossly discriminatory.
What makes matter worse, is that it interferes with sensible choices to be made as part of the career pattern (and, where it exists, advice) on future employment, and the right course for the right young person.
Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been abolished, and whilst there is some fallback help for the most disadvantaged, this exists whether the young person is in school or college.
At the moment, further education and sixth form colleges are having to set up food banks, direct help from staff to assist young people to remain in education, and there is a desperate need to ensure that the families of those most disadvantaged do not face even greater pressure, in order that their youngsters might stay in education, gain qualifications and have hope for the future.
Given the fact that one in five under-25s is out of education, employment and training, the situation in relation to discrimination against those outside the school system takes on much greater significance. Instead of offering people the opportunity (what the deputy prime minister would presumably call social mobility), we are deliberately making life more difficult for those who already find life difficult.
I am therefore calling upon the government to end this discrimination, to simply ensure that young people post-16 have the same offer made to them, whichever educational setting they are in, whichever course they're taking and whichever institution is providing that course.
Either all young people 16-18 should be entitled to free meals, or the entitlement should be removed from those in school sixth forms and every 16-18 year old should be entitled to the Pupil Premium.
The simplest solution would of course be to offer the entitlement to free school meals to all youngsters, and if the government believe there are administrative difficulties then extending the Pupil Premium would be an obvious way of assisting (the institutions themselves could then make the free school meals available as part of the overall commitment to encouraging and supporting staying on post-16).
The situation will be made even more ridiculous as the requirements to remain in some form of education and training is extended from next year. Now is the moment for the government to act.
Response: Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges
"I welcome the fact that this debate has highlighted that there is cross-party consensus on this issue and am thankful for the support shown by MPs to their local colleges, students and to the further education sector as a whole.
The fact that this is not a new funding anomaly does not mean that it’s not something that should be addressed by the Government at the earliest opportunity; it is not enough to keep it under review. A system which funds 16 to 18-year-olds from disadvantaged families for free school meals in any educational institution except sixth form colleges and further education colleges is blatantly unfair.
For a full response please see here.