Campaigners urge UK governments to find £1.75bn for universal free school meals

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

A third of school-aged children living in poverty in the UK – roughly one million young people – do not get free school meals (FSM).

New research from the Covid Realities project and the Child Poverty Action Group (Patrick et al, 2021) says that restrictive eligibility criteria and barriers to FSM take-up are to blame.

The majority of those missing out are in England (900,000; 37 per cent) and Wales (55,000; 42 per cent), while Scotland (25,000; 17 per cent) and Northern Ireland (20,000; 22 per cent) fare relatively better.

Campaigners ultimately want to see school meals offered to every pupil, something which the report estimates would cost £1.75bn a year. In addition, families with no recourse to public funds, often due to their immigration status, should also be allowed access to FSMs.

In the shorter term, the report’s authors want to see FSMs offered to all households on Universal Credit (which would cost £700m). Another stepping-stone would be to follow the Scottish government’s lead by extending FSMs to all primary school pupils. It is estimated this would cost £770m.

Currently, in England, all children in Reception, years 1 and 2 receive a free meal each day. In Wales and Northern Ireland, there is currently no universal provision for infants. In Scotland, universal FSMs are being rolled out to all primary school pupils by August 2022.

The analysis shows that despite a rise in the number of children claiming FSMs in the year to March 2021, restrictive eligibility criteria still prevent many in poverty from accessing any form of FSM provision.

For example, households on Universal Credit in England and Wales must earn less than £7,400 a year to be eligible for FSM, regardless of the number of children in the family. In Scotland, they must earn less than £7,320, while in Northern Ireland, it is £14,000.

It means that many children from working families are living in poverty but unable to access FSMs.

Other barriers to eligibility including being in receipt of working tax credit. One participant on the Covid Realities programme told researchers: “We as a family would be better off not getting working tax credit as that stops us being entitled to free school meals, yet we pay over triple the amount we receive in working tax credit on school meals – really makes me wonder how many more people don’t get free school meals due to a tiny amount of working tax credits.”

On top of eligibility problems, there are also barriers preventing eligible families from applying for FSMs, not least perceived stigma and fear of being identified. The report warns that practices in some schools – such as limited meal choice or limits on when pupils can use their FSM allowance – still lead to the identification of FSM pupils.

The issue of child poverty and the role of schools – including how we can break down barriers to FSM up-take – was discussed during a recent episode of the SecEd Podcast (2021) – Headteacher Update's sister magazine. One of the guests in that episode, Kate Anstey, the cost of the school day lead at CPAG, is the co-author of the new report.

Speaking this week, Ms Anstey said: “It should be an outrage that so many children in poverty aren’t allowed a free school meal. We know what a huge difference these meals can make to struggling families who are at their wits’ end. It’s high time we gave them one less thing to worry about – that’s why we’re calling for urgent changes to the rules so all families on a low income can get this daily support.”

The Covid Realities research programme is a partnership between the Universities of York and Birmingham and the CPAG with funding from the Nuffield Foundation. Since April 2020, Covid Realities has worked with parents and carers living on a low income to document their experiences during the pandemic.

  • Patrick et al: Fixing Lunch: The case for expanding free school meals, Cod Realities & Child Poverty Action Group, August 2021:
  • SecEd Podcast: Tackling the consequences of poverty, June 2021:

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