The exceptions to child exceptionalism: Migrant deservingness in the UK's free school meal debates


The ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition, which is imposed on people ‘subject to immigration control’, forms a key part of the UK’s punitive migration regime, bordering access to social support for migrants who need it. One example, and this talk’s focus, is the denial of free school meals (FSM) to children in families with NRPF, some of the most destitute in Britain. This has long been a concern for migrants’ rights groups and families navigating everyday borders in the UK. Recent campaigns and threats of legal action have resulted in some children affected by NRPF becoming temporarily eligible for FSM during the pandemic, but campaigns for access have continued due to ongoing problems with the policy. This talk explores the imaginaries of childhood, poverty and nation which shape such policies and offers a warning that, without reflecting on and even challenging these imaginaries, campaigns can end up justifying exclusions of some migrant families at the very same time that they aim for more expansive support. We argue that how campaigns represent their causes – which, in the case of FSM, is often through the exceptionalism and therefore hyper-deservingness of childhood and a focus on the extraordinary circumstances of Covid – has implications. These representations, we suggest, can ultimately end up narrowing political imaginaries and reducing discussion to technical questions about who is ‘deserving’, and, in the process, risk shoring up an exclusionary, nativist and hostile state.

Speaker biography

Rachel Rosen

Rachel Rosen is an Associate Professor of Childhood in the UCL Social Research Institute. Her research focuses on marginalised children and families, especially those with precarious immigration status; the intersection of neoliberal welfare and border policies which shape their lives; and their practices of sustenance and care. Her current projects include Children Caring on the Move and Solidarities: Negotiating Migrant Deservingness. She is co-editor of Reimagining Childhood Studies and Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or foes?

Eve Dickson

Eve Dickson is a Research Fellow at the UCL Social Research Institute. She is a psychosocial scholar with research interests in migration, social policy, gender and childhood. Her research focuses particularly on migrant groups excluded from mainstream welfare support. Her work has been published in Critical Social Policy, Critical Quarterly, and Families, Relationships and Societies.

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Feb 01 2022 -

The exceptions to child exceptionalism: Migrant deservingness in the UK's free school meal debates

Rachel Rosen and Eve Dickson from the UCL Social Research Institute gave a presentation to this webinar.