Sheffield mum claims victory in fight to prove disabled son does have right to free school meals at home

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In her fight back, Jennifer says she 'practically' taught herself disability law, with endless nights researching case studies.

A Sheffield mum and her autistic son have won a precedent-setting victory over his right to free school meals at home.

Arbourthorne mum and full-time carer Jennifer Dunstan, 43, has fought for over a year to prove her son Rio, 12, is entitled to help from his school to feed and educate him while he has been on long-term disability-related absence.

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He has not been in school or had access to education for over a year after a traumatic incident put him in hospital for two months.

Sheffield mum Jennifer Dunstan (R) and her son Rio have won a precedent-setting fight to show they are entitled to free school meals and education support while on long-term disability-related absence.Sheffield mum Jennifer Dunstan (R) and her son Rio have won a precedent-setting fight to show they are entitled to free school meals and education support while on long-term disability-related absence.
Sheffield mum Jennifer Dunstan (R) and her son Rio have won a precedent-setting fight to show they are entitled to free school meals and education support while on long-term disability-related absence. | Jennifer Dunstan

Instead, over the past 15 months, it has seen Jennifer constantly paying out of her own pocket while his school, Heritage Park Community, has withheld free school meal vouchers and failed to help him learn at home.

Now, in a precedent that could open the door for untold other families, Sheffield City Council has formally apologised to the courageous mum and promised to backpay every penny - to the tune of £4,000.

Jennifer, who has spent countless nights in the last year researching disability law on her own, told The Star: "Through it all, I was a full-time mum, nurse, carer and then a teacher. I was so stressed my hair was falling out in the shower.

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"Some have said to me 'ooh what you going to spend it on, what a treat' - it's not like that at all. The money is paying off my credit card. It's money I've had to take out of my benefits for over a year. It's money I should have been using to live on."

Heritage Park Community School, Sheffield. Jennifer says the school withheld 15 months of free school meal vouchers and support, leaving him cut from any education.Heritage Park Community School, Sheffield. Jennifer says the school withheld 15 months of free school meal vouchers and support, leaving him cut from any education.
Heritage Park Community School, Sheffield. Jennifer says the school withheld 15 months of free school meal vouchers and support, leaving him cut from any education. | Google Maps

Rio's long-term absence from school reportedly began when he started suffering severe meltdowns.

The 12-year-old with special educational needs is a young man with especially high needs, such that Jennifer says three other special schools in the city have rejected taking him in as they cannot meet his requirements.

In June 2022, he was admitted to hospital after an incident in school reportedly sent him into a near-frenzied state for three days. He was an inpatient for two months, and has not returned to Heritage Park since, with Jennifer concerned any visit to the site will trigger another episode.

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Jennifer and Rio Dunstan. The 12-year-old boy with SEND is a young men with multiple complex needs, and his mum has fought for over a year to see he gets the support he needs.Jennifer and Rio Dunstan. The 12-year-old boy with SEND is a young men with multiple complex needs, and his mum has fought for over a year to see he gets the support he needs.
Jennifer and Rio Dunstan. The 12-year-old boy with SEND is a young men with multiple complex needs, and his mum has fought for over a year to see he gets the support he needs. | Jennifer Dunstan

However, Rio has remained on Heritage Park's roll through his Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) - meaning the school and local authority is responsible for seeing he receives an adequate education.

It also means he is eligible for free school meals wherever he happens to be learning - which has been at home for the last year, where Jennifer did her best to arrange tutors, pay for her own school books and give her son an education.

Jennifer said: "Every pen, every piece of paper, was paid out of my own money. I'm a full-time carer and mum - all I have to live on each month is my benefits.

"What I have spent so long trying to prove is that after 15 days of disability-related long-term absence, there is an obligation from the local authority to make sure Rio has an adequate education and receives support. But I didn't get so much as one piece of paper or a pen, from the school or the local authority. And not for lack of trying.

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"The school receives the funding. They could pass it on in supermarket vouchers or food parcels or however they choose. But they chose to instead to say to the council that Rio isn't learning with them so they didn't need to send the vouchers."

Jennifer says she raised the matter at 15 separate monthly meetings attended by childcare agency staff, social workers and child and adolescent mental health services specialists.

"It all made me so angry," said Jennifer. "And it made me think of how many families like mine are in Sheffield and the UK where we cannot work because we are full-time carers for disabled children.

"And families like mine cannot afford a solicitor. We are on the poverty line, living only on the money we have already."

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In her fight back, Jennifer says she 'practically' taught herself disability law, with endless nights researching cases under the Children & Families Act, Disabilities Act and the Education Act. On the way, she was supported by CEO of Equalities and Human Rights UK Chrissy Meleady MBE and Autism Union.

And now, Jennifer has claimed victory.

After securing a meeting with the chair of the Education, Children and Families policy committee, Councillor Dawn Dale, on September 14, Jennifer was able to share her experience, explain how her son had been failed - and received a full apology.

Jennifer said: "To her credit, when I explained what happened at the meeting, Dawn Dale apologised there and then and took action quickly.

"They politely asked me if I kept receipts for any school materials I had paid for in the past 15 months. I had."

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Now, Jennifer says the council has issued her a formal apology and have promised to reimburse her for every penny she spent without support from the school, amounting to £4,000.

"As well as this, a week later, Andrew Jones [director of Education and Skills at the council] personally phoned me to apologise in person and say what they will do to make it right," Jennifer said.

Councillor Jones has reportedly now written to every school in the city to 'firmly' remind them of their responsibility to children on long-term disability-related absence.

Heritage Park Community School - which Jennifer says has not issued an apology - has been contacted for a comment.

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Jennifer said: "It doesn't just help me and Rio, it helps every child who is on fixed-term exclusion, or on long-term disability-related absence, or anyone eligible for free school meals and support.

"I feel deeply sad and angry that it took such a large amount of time for anybody - and of these professionals - no one said 'hang on a minute, shouldn't we be providing this support for this child?'

"No one stepped up for him. It's like he didn't matter to them.

"He has been out of school for much of his Y7 and Y8, which are developmental. He has lost nearly two years of education.

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"And I'm angry I've lost this much of my life as well, in stress and being out of pocket and trying to prove my son has these basic rights while no one at the school or the council would realise it's their duty."

The Star understands the letter sent to schools outlines that children who are electively home educated - withdrawn by the parent from a school roll - are excluded from free school meal eligibility.

However, children such as Rio who will be educated on an EOTAS package [education other than at school] are eligible.

Councillor Dawn Dale said: "We want to make sure that every student with special needs in Sheffield receives an education that meets their needs.

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"We are liaising directly with Jennifer and will be writing to her and to Rio, which will include our apology. Every case is different and dealt with on a case-by-case basis. We will make sure that we look at any free school meals cases like this in an appropriate and timely way.

"We encourage anyone who has any questions or queries about the SEND provision they or their child are receiving to contact the head teacher and the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) at the school, or the local authority.

"When special school places are allocated, the local authority provides funding to the school for the school place and provision. Schools are required to ensure that children eligible for free school meals are able to receive them, even if they are not, for whatever reason, attending the school for a time."

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