Protection pledge for pupils on free school meals as Universal Credit switch approaches

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Premium protection: Pupils on free school meals/Pupil Premium are to be protected from losing out under changes to eligibility criteria under Universal Credit, the DfE says (image: Adobe Stock)

School leaders have welcomed government plans to protect Pupil Premium students who are at risk of losing out because of the change to Universal Credit.

Consultation proposals have been published by the Department for Education (DfE) about how free school meals (FSM) and Pupil Premium eligibility will work under the new Universal Credit benefits programme.

The DfE has said that its proposals will protect any pupils who would otherwise lose entitlement to FSM under Universal Credit. Furthermore, it claims that under the plans up to 50,000 more young people should be eligible for FSM once Universal Credit is fully rolled out.

The consultation proposes changing the eligibility criteria to base it on a household’s net earnings, rather than the number of hours worked. A household’s net earnings do not include their additional income through benefits.

The consultation sets out plans for a net income threshold from April 2018 of £7,400 per year before benefits are taken into account for families to benefit from FSM.

The document states: “It is important to note that the net earnings threshold does not represent a household’s total income, as it does not include their income from benefits, which significantly increase a household’s overall income.

“A typical family earning around £7,400 per annum would, depending on their exact circumstances, have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account.”

It means that, from April 2018 onwards, new FSM claimants earning above the £7,400 threshold would not be eligible. This threshold would remain in place until the end of the roll-out of Universal Credit, from which point it would then be kept “under review”.

However, the consultation also promises that all children currently receiving FSM “should continue to benefit from this until the full roll out of Universal Credit, and then until they reach the end of their current education stage (primary or secondary school)”.

The consultation adds: “Under our proposed threshold, a number of low-income households who are not currently entitled to free school meals will become newly entitled, and the vast majority (around 90 per cent) of pupils currently eligible for free school meals will continue to be eligible.”

The National Association of Head Teachers has welcomed the proposals to protect families currently eligible, but wants to see action to tackle the problem of eligible children who miss-out on the funding – an issue it has campaigned on in recent years.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The Pupil Premium is a vital and well understood tool for helping children from families with lower incomes. But DfE figures show that nationally 11 per cent of eligible children are missing out, close to 30 per cent in some areas. This is one of the burning injustices that the prime minister talks about.

“The NAHT would like to see the government allow automatic registration for Pupil Premium. The data already exists, it just needs to be shared with schools. Automatically registering children for the Pupil Premium would put a serious dent in social inequality. While we welcome the consultation, it sees a missed opportunity for a simpler system for families and schools and we’d urge the government to take this easy and obvious step.”

The DfE has said that plans to introduce new guidance to help schools simplify the registration process for FSM and to encourage take up are “underway”.

Minister for children and families Robert Goodwill said: “As Universal Credit is rolled out, it is right that we continue to make sure this support reaches children from the most disadvantaged families. Our proposals should not only protect those children already receiving free school meals and additional school funding but will see thousands more benefiting from this support in future.

“This is an important issue and we need to get this right to make sure we continue to help those children most in need. That’s why it is vital that we hear from teachers, early years professionals and families throughout this consultation.”

  • The consultation – Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit – closes at 5pm on January 11. For details, visit

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