Almost one in four now eligible for free school meals – but many children still miss out

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Almost one in four pupils in state-funded education now qualify for free school meals (FSMs), however restrictive eligibility criteria still prevent many living in poverty from accessing a free school lunch.

The latest pupil census information (DfE, 2022) shows that 1.9 million pupils were eligible for FSM as of January 2022 – equating to 22.5% of the student population and an increase of nearly 160,000 since January 2021 and of around 450,000 since January 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis is pushing many families into poverty, with almost one million children thought to be living in “food insecure” households.

However, one in three children living in disadvantaged families are missing out on FSM because they are not eligible – equating to around 800,000 students, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

To be eligible for free school meals, a household on Universal Credit in England must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits), regardless of the number of children in the family. This low threshold means that many children from working families in poverty are not entitled to FSM.

CPAG has this week warned that children are going hungry as a result of a lack of action on FSM. It wants to see immediate changes to ensure all children in families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits can access FSM.

The charity also wants the government to move towards universal provision of FSM, an approach that it says would increase take-up and reduce stigma.

The latest child poverty figures show that the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at 3.9 million. This represents 27% of the UK’s children.

Furthermore, the figures show that 22% of those living in poverty – around 900,000 children and young people – are in a household classified as “food insecure”.

It is expected that these figures will worsen when the impact of the axing last year of the Universal Credit £20 uplift filters through.

Despite the stark figures, the government delivered a blow to campaigners this week when its National Food Strategy (Defra, 2022) refused to take-up the recommendation of food tsar Henry Dimbleby to expand the eligibility for FSM to all children from households in receipt of Universal Credit.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said she was “deeply disappointed”.

She continued: “Besides the strong moral imperative to extend eligibility there is also an educational need as children are more likely to learn effectively if they have the basics of good nutritional food. The government must act on this issue and do the right thing for these young people.”

Kate Anstey, head of the UK Cost of the School Day programme at CPAG, added: “We know families are being left to make impossible decisions, with many parents simply unable to afford lunches but desperately not wanting their children to go without.

“Food is vital to children’s health, wellbeing and learning, and the government cannot continue to stand by while children in poverty go hungry at lunchtime. No other part of the school day is means-tested in this way – universal FSM should simply be a fundamental part of going to school.”

Ms McCulloch said it was “shocking” to see the latest FSM figures in one of the world’s wealthiest economies.

She continued: “Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help. FSM eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%.

“It is simply unacceptable that so many young people live in such difficult circumstances, and it has a huge impact on their education as they are less likely to be ready to learn if their families are struggling to provide them with basics such as a nutritious diet.”

Elsewhere this week, the DfE has confirmed an £18m uplift to funding for universal infant FSMs in reception, year 1 and 2, although critics were quick to point out that this amounts to only 7p extra per meal and is not enough to cover the rising costs facing schools.

Also of note in the latest pupil data figures, the number of pupils in state-funded nursery, primary, secondary, and special schools, and independent schools has now passed nine million as of January 2022 after an increase of 88,000 in the last year.

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