A NORTH-East school has become the first in the country to join a national campaign designed to stop students being short-changed with their lunch money.

Carmel College, in Darlington, has already made changes to the school IT system which allows pupils’ unspent lunch money to be carried over to buy future meals.

The issue was highlighted by a pupil-led investigation into the estimated £65m a year in unused allowances being retained by school meal providers.

At Carmel College students use a biometric system to scan their fingerprints once they have chosen what they would like to eat and arrive at the till.

But recipients of free school meals, who missed lunch because of activities, didn’t attend school that day, or didn’t spend up to the full allowance, until now were unable to keep the change.

Free school meals have been available to children for the past 75 years recognising the benefits to learning of children not being hungry at school, with 745,000 pupils nationally qualifying for the allowance.

Tyne & Wear Citizens, which is part of Citizens UK, conducted a listening campaign involving thousands of people in Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham in 2017.

It identified the allowance issue as part of research into poverty-proofing the school day undertaken by Children North East.

North-East pupils from Kenton School, Newcastle, Park View, Chester-le-Street and Venerable Bede School, Sunderland, took up the cause, attending workshops and creating videos for YouTube as part of a Just Change Campaign.

Carmel Education Trust became the first in the country to act and two other Carmel Education Trust schools – Our Lady and St Bede Catholic Academy, Stockton, and St Michael’s Catholic Academy, Billingham – have been swift to follow suit.

Chief executive of the Carmel Education Trust, Maura Regan, said: “As soon as the issue was brought to our attention I knew we had a moral imperative to act immediately.

“We made a simple, low-cost change to the schools’ IT system which resulted in £17,000 being credited back to pupils and preventing any short-change in the future.

"The money didn’t belong to us, or the meal providers, it belonged to the children.

“Now the students feel more confident about being able to spend their allowance.

"They feel more responsible and equal to their peers. They can use it before school, at break time or after school.

"It also means that if they have a lunchtime activity they can buy something for lunch at breaktime. It is a very popular and positive move – and it is just, right and proper.”