Children getting school meals in a canteen

Since the end of 2021, the cost-of-living crisis, and soaring inflation, has been hitting the most marginalised communities in London and across England, because a bigger proportion of their spending concentrates on food and energy, which are essential for living. To provide some financial relief to the most marginalised families, this week the Mayor of London has announced a £130m scheme to extend free school meals (FSM) to every primary school child in the city of London for one year.

According to Sadiq Khan, the scheme is intended to support 270,000 state primary school children in London who do not already receive FSM, of whom an estimated 100,000 live in poverty. The scheme is targeting especially those children who live in households on universal credit, missing out on FSM because the household income is over the threshold of £7,400 a year.

Several charities in the capital, and across the nation, have applauded the introduction of this scheme as a vital nutritional safety net for every primary school child. Alongside the National Education Union, they are now urging the government to extend FSM for all in primary and secondary across the rest of the country, and long term. Such commitment from the government will help promoting a more equitable and more inclusive education system for marginalised children.

The government should channel resources in expanding FSM provisions and in providing systematic training to pre- and in-service teachers, in order to challenge 'dysconscious ableism' towards multiply marginalised students in England.

Dr Valentina Migliarini, Assistant Professor in Education Studies

In England, FSM status has been historically part of the administrative datasets used by schools as a proxy to determine family socio-economic status. More importantly, it has been used as a variable determining educational attainment of students, and as a measure for monitoring school performance since 2007.

The Department for Education statistics have shown repeatedly that most students in poverty achieve relatively poor results regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. However, there is extensive research evidence showing that students’ achievement gets significantly worse when FSM status intersects with other identity markers such as race, disability and migratory status. This is because multiply marginalised students, those living at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, are considerably more likely to be judged by teachers and school professionals as lacking ‘ability’, and, therefore, find themselves in the lower achievement scores.

Hence, while Sadiq Khan’s scheme should be judged as essential for providing relief to marginalised children and their family during a prolonged economic crisis, and the government should take action to extend it to all students in primary and secondary across the nation, it should also be accompanied by national school policies challenging teachers’ biases and dysconscious ableism and racism. This way, the impact on educational achievement of the intersection between FSM and other identities will be mitigated.

Dysconscious ableism expands upon the idea of dysconscious racism to examine the ways in which teachers and school professionals hold distorted understandings of inequalities and oppression in education and society. Dysconscious ableism allows teachers to remain invested in pathological views of diversity and dominant constructions of what constitute the “norm”, used to rank, categorize, and pathologise students. As a result, dysconsciousness warps teachers’ understandings and enactments of equitable and justice-oriented pedagogies.

The government should then channel resources in expanding FSM provisions and in providing systematic training to pre- and in-service teachers, in order to challenge dysconscious ableism towards multiply marginalised students in England. Only through such multiple engagement it is possible to provide an equitable and inclusive education system, focusing on the good health, wellbeing and learning of all students. Simultaneously, only through these engagements can teachers learn how oppressions are produced and reproduced in society, and the strategies that multiply marginalised students enact on a daily basis to resist them.