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Free school meals recipients struggle to earn a living wage

Fewer than a quarter of people (23%) in England who used to receive free school meals were earning above the living wage by the age of 25.

By comparison, almost double (44%) the amount of those who did not receive free school meals were earning above the living wage by age 25.

This is according to new research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is exploring social mobility in the UK.

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Lizzie Crowley, senior skills adviser at the CIPD, told HR magazine: “These figures shine a light on the long shadow cast by social and economic disadvantages in early life.”

To qualify for free school meals, a child’s family must be receiving some form of income support or child tax credit. Free school meals are therefore commonly used as indicator of socio-economic disadvantage, including child poverty.

Childhood poverty has proven to have severe impacts on a person’s future health and potential earnings.

Crowley added: “While this issue needs to be addressed on multiple fronts, employers can also take action now to improve social mobility.”

She recommended employers build links with schools and colleges, publicise clear career pathways, such as apprenticeships, and set up training opportunities for young talent.

She said: “They should also ensure they are reaching as wide a talent pool as possible during the recruitment process, by advertising opportunities across multiple channels and ensuring all qualification requirements are relevant to the role.”

Additionally, female recipients of free school meals were significantly less likely than their male counterparts to earn above the living wage by age 25, suggesting gender has a disproportionate impact on earnings for people from poorer families.

While 28% of men who had received free meals earned above the living wage, just 18% of female recipients earned that much.

In October 2020, two in five (20%) children were eligible for free meals. 

Katherine Chapman, director at the Living Wage Foundation, said the statistics had identified a concerning link between childhood poverty and a lasting difficulty in finding higher-paid work.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “That workers who relied on free school meals as a child should have almost half the chance of earning a wage that supports their lives is simply unacceptable – all of us deserve to work secure hours and earn a dignified wage, irrespective of where we’ve come from.

By offering a living wage to employees, she added, companies will guarantee their workers that their basic needs will be met in exchange for their day’s work.


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