Cost of living crisis: Increasing numbers of non-FSM pupils cannot afford school lunches

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

Pupils unable to concentrate, tired, without adequate winter clothing, coming to school hungry, and families unable to afford school lunches...

The impact of the cost of living crisis on families across the country has been spelt out in the starkest terms by new research.

A survey of more than 6,200 school teachers and leaders in England, commissioned by the Sutton Trust and carried out by Teacher Tapp, reveals worrying increases in the numbers of pupils facing serious issues linked to the cost of living.

The results show that teachers are seeing a number of problems in state schools:

  • 74% of teachers have seen an increase in pupils unable to concentrate or tired in class
  • 67% have more students with behaviour issues
  • 54% have seen an increase in those coming into school without adequate winter clothing.
  • 38% report an increase in children coming into school hungry
  • 17% say there has been an increase in families asking for food bank referrals.

Around half of senior leaders in state-funded schools (52%) also reported that the number of children ineligible for free school meals and yet unable to afford lunch has increased this autumn.

FSM eligibility has become a hot topic as the cost of living crisis pushes more families into poverty.

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 Food Foundation’s Feed the Future campaign is pushing for all families on Universal Credit to be given access to FSMs. It is estimated that 800,000 children living in poverty are still not eligible.

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.

However, the government did not take the opportunity presented by the Autumn Statement to expand FSM eligibility in face of soaring rates of inflation and a cost of living crisis.

The Sutton Trust research found that leaders working in the most deprived schools, with the highest proportions of existing pupils eligible for FSMs, were even more likely (59%) to report increasing numbers of pupils unable to afford lunch.

In a commentary analysing the findings, Rebecca Montacute, senior research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust, said: “Keeping all our country’s children warm and fed should be an absolute minimum, for their safety and their wellbeing. It is shocking and deeply unfair that any children are hungry and cold. But the scale of the problem indicated by these figures is no less than a scandal.

“While it is welcome that the government has now announced that benefits will increase with inflation, the change is not due to come into force until April. Children and their families clearly need much more urgent support.

“It is also clear that the current cut-off for FSMs is not set at the right level, with many teachers seeing children unable to afford lunch who are not currently eligible. Access to FSMs should be expanded to fully capture those in need, by making them available to all families on Universal Credit.

“Children cannot learn effectively when living in poverty … but on an even more basic level than that, children simply should not be living in these conditions.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Nearly one-third of children in the UK are living in poverty, a completely unacceptable figure for one of the world’s wealthiest economies.

“Schools desperately need the government to do more to help these young people and their families. Sustained long-term action and investment is required, but an important step that the government can and should take right now is to extend the eligibility of FSMs to all families in receipt of universal credit.”

Dr MaryBousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “Offering FSMs to all children in primary school would be a welcome first step in tackling the epidemic of child hunger, giving families some breathing room and supporting the education and wellbeing of our children. The cost of not doing so is too great. The government must rectify its decision not to widen access to FSMs and ensure that every child in primary school gets a hot, healthy meal every day.”

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.