Not eligible! Thousands of children in poverty are denied free school meals

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

More than 35,000 children living in poverty in the North East of England are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) under current rules.

The figure amounts to one in four children from the poorest families in the region, according to a new briefing report from poverty campaigners and children’s charities.

Furthermore, the report highlights that thousands more pupils who are eligible for FSM are not taking up their entitlement. And these students are not only missing out on FSMs, but their schools are also being deprived of the Pupil Premium funding that goes alongside FSM take-up.

The report also highlights a number of actions that schools can take to reduce FSM stigma, including rolling over unspent allowances from day-to-day and doing more to ensure FSM pupils are not identifiable to their peers.

Entitled The cost of missing lunchtime, the report has been targeted at MPs as part of efforts to lobby for a change in the rules governing how FSMs are allocated.

The problems have come because of changes in eligibility criteria. In 2013, the government made all those in receipt of the new Universal Credit payment eligible for FSMs in order to protect families from losing out during the roll-out.

However, in April 2018, the rules were changed and since then families on Universal Credit have had to have an income of less than £7,400 to be eligible.

Also, families receiving child tax credit are only eligible for FSM if they are not also entitled to working tax credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190. Families qualify for working tax credit if they are working a certain number of hours (16 hours a week for a lone parent) and have a low income. It means that families receiving working tax credit may be living below the poverty line but not eligible for FSM.

The report, which has been compiled by the Child Poverty Action Group, the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC), and Children North East, say that the 2018 changes have led to many children “falling through the net”.

One mother told researchers: “I am unable to claim any free meals. I was registered disabled and am not able to return to work at present. My husband is a key worker, working seven days to make ends meet. Due to his increased hours we do not qualify for any further benefits.”

The briefing puts the cost of extending FSM to all those on Universal Credit across the North East at £38.1m. Nationally, extending FSM to all those on Universal Credit would mean an additional 1.8 million children would become eligible, at a cost of £750m. This is something footballer turned poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford has also said he will lobby for.

Elsewhere, the report warns that many families who are eligible are not taking-up their FSM entitlement. Across the North East, only 89 per cent of eligible pupils are registered (103,000 against 116,000 who are eligible).

The report estimates that schools across the North East are currently losing £15m in Pupil Premium funding per year because not all families take-up FSM.

The report highlights that some families simply do not know they are eligible, while others are afraid of stigma from claiming FSM. It calls on local authorities to review their FSM policies and processes to maximise up-take and get information to all eligible families. It also contains some important lessons for schools about the barriers that can be created by how FSMs are delivered (see below).

Finally, the briefing highlights that another 4,000 North East pupils who are living in families with no recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status, may also miss out if the temporary extension of FSM to these households is not made permanent.

Actions schools can take

The briefing warns that there are still practices in place in schools that stigmatise and disadvantage FSM students.

This includes making them easily identifiable by their peers as being on FSM, such as FSM appearing on dinner hall screens, or food being delivered in special brown/white paper bags.

Other barriers include unclear pricing options (meaning FSM pupils do not understand what they can afford), limited menu choice for FSMs, and limited flexibility about when they can spend the allowance (i.e. only at lunch and not at break times).

One intervention that has made a big difference to FSM students in some North East schools has been fixing the administration system so they are able to “carry over” unspent FSM money day-to-day.

Other ideas that have proved effective include offering lunches to all pupils on school trips to avoid stigmatisation and working with catering teams to ensure FSM students have the same choices as other pupils.


Amanda Bailey, director of the NECPC, said that expanding FSM would be cost-effective: “Research (cited in the briefing) shows that FSMs have a number of proven benefits and are an effective anti-child poverty measure. They can help boost children’s learning and attainment as well as supporting their health through providing a balanced meal each day.

“Children also benefit from the social experience of sitting down together, eating the same food and sharing the dining hall experience. For families, FSM entitlement can relieve pressures on household budgets and free-up money for other living costs.

“Expanding FSMs to more children can also help to tackle inequalities by decreasing the number of children in low-income families who miss out, and it can reduce stigma associated with the entitlement.”

Luke Bramhall, poverty proofing and participation service manager for Children North East, added: “It is clearly not right that many thousands of primary and secondary pupils in our region are being deprived of vital nutrition. We believe the current eligibility threshold is too low so we are calling on the government to restore the previous eligibility threshold, which included all families on Universal Credit. This should be extended to all those on equivalent benefits.”

Poverty is rising nationally, including in-work poverty

Poverty figures are based on the government’s Households Below Average Income statistics and published annually. Children living in poverty are those in families that earn less than 60 per cent of the UK median income after housing costs.

The latest figures, published in March this year and covering the 2019/20 financial year, show that 4.3 million children across the UK are living in poverty after housing costs. This is 31 per cent of all children.

Three quarters (75 per cent) of children in poverty live in a working household and 49 per cent of children in lone-parent families are in poverty (DWP, 2021).

And the figures are getting worse. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that relative child poverty will reach five million by 2024/25 (Brewer et al, 2021). By comparison, in 2010/11, there were 3.6 million children living in poverty, with 58 per cent of these in working families.

  • Brewer et al: The Living Standards Outlook 2021, Resolution Foundation, January 2021:
  • Child Poverty Action Group, North East Child Poverty Commission, Children North East: The cost of missing lunchtime: A briefing on free school meals in the North East of England, May 2021:
  • DWP: Households below average income (HBAI) statistics, last updated March 2021:

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