‘Utterly shameful’ – child poverty increases as FSM debate continues

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Hundreds of thousands of children have been pulled back into poverty, food insecurity is rising, and 1.7 million children remain ineligible for free school meals despite their families being on Universal Credit.

The debate over free school meal (FSM) provision has reignited this week after a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) revealed flaws in the current system (Cribb et al, 2023).

It comes as around 350,000 more children have been pulled back into poverty according to the latest statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP, 2023).

The total number of children living in relative poverty (families with a household income below 60% of median income after housing costs) has risen to 4.2 million in the period April 2021 to March 2022. This represents 29% of all UK children.

The IFS report, meanwhile, warns that despite 30% of families on Universal Credit being considered “food insecure”, 69% of families on Universal Credit are not eligible for FSMs – this equates to 1.7 million children.

This is because to be eligible, families must have an after-tax income of less than £7,400 a year.

The study looks at the costs and implications of options for expanding FSM provision including expanding FSMs for all children on Universal Credit or increasing the income threshold.

It comes as London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced that in 2023/24 all primary-age children in state schools in London will be eligible for FSMs, expanding eligibility by 270,000 pupils beyond the 550,000 who are already eligible.

Currently, of the 8.4 million children in state schools in England, 3.4 million are eligible for FSMs, including universal provision in Reception and years 1 and 2. This costs £1.4bn a year.

The IFS says that there is “a fairly strong evidence base suggesting that children who receive FSMs benefit academically”. Its report covers expansion options including:

  • Expanding provision to all families on Universal Credit, which would cost an additional £1bn a year and bring 1.7 million children into eligibility.
  • Raising the income threshold to £20,000 – a figure suggested by the National Food Strategy – which would cost £425m and would bring 900,000 additional children into eligibility.
  • Offering universal provision for primary and secondary pupils up to year 11, which would cost an extra £2.5bn a year.

Any expansion of FSMs will also necessitate investment in capital funding for school kitchens and dining areas, the IFS adds.

The report does not make any definitive recommendations about which option is preferrable but does state: “Expanding eligibility to all on Universal Credit would make more than 90% of the lowest-income fifth eligible for FSMs and have very little impact on eligibility for children of higher income families.”

It comes after the Joseph Rowntree Foundation cost of living tracker warned in January that 6 in 10 of the poorest families either cut down on or skipped meals for adults in the home because there was not enough money for food. The IFS report said that the evidence shows that FSM eligibility “reduces the amount that families spend on groceries”.

As the FSMs debate continues, food insecurity is worsening. The child poverty figures (DWP, 2023) show that food insecurity is rising with 21% of children who live in relative poverty (before housing costs) also living in food insecure households – a rise of 4% in a year.

Furthermore, of the 4.2 million children now living in relative poverty (after housing costs), 2.7 million are living in so-called “deep poverty” – in families with 50% of median income, measured after housing costs.

And 71% of all children living in relative poverty are living in working families. The figures cover the period April 2021 to March 2022.

This rise in child poverty has been largely attributed to the government’s decision to cut the £20 Universal Credit uplift, which came into effect during this period.

The £20 uplift had helped to reduce child poverty figures to 3.9m in the 2020/21 figures, but its axing means we have returned to pre-Covid levels of child poverty.

Mark Russell, chief executive at The Children’s Society, said the figures were “utterly shameful” and that worse could be to come given that they cover the period before the rise in energy bills began to bite and the cost of living crisis took hold.

He added: “This year also sees a rise in the issue of food insecurity that can blight young people’s lives, with around 145,000 children in the UK living in homes that have used a food bank in the last month. This just highlights how vulnerable children and teenagers are to having enough food.

“Poverty has a devastating impact on children’s lives, missing out on hot meals, sleeping in cold bedrooms, and being bullied at school, and drastically reducing their long terms prospects.

“The government urgently needs to put in place more targeted help for families such as providing free school meals for all children whose families receive Universal Credit and a longer-term sustained commitment to funding local welfare assistance schemes run by local councils. They should also scrap the two-child limit and benefit cap.

“It’s a national scandal that children are still living in poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.”

Elsewhere, the IFS study finds that the FSM funding has lost 16% of its real-terms value since 2014. The rate currently stands at £2.41 per meal but would have been at £2.87 per meal had funding kept pace with inflation.

And it also warns of the cliff-edge that families on the cusp of FSM eligibility face. It means that families have a financial incentive to avoid earning a little over the threshold.

The report states: “For a single parent with two school-aged children, this ‘cliff edge’ means that earning £7,399 and keeping free school meals would be financially preferable to earning anything up to £9,400. That is equivalent to turning down an extra four hours of work each week at the National Living Wage.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is shameful that so many children continue to miss out on a scheme with such proven benefits. As this report states, there is clear evidence that increasing the take-up of school lunches has a positive impact on living standards, nutrition and attainment that persists into adulthood. Providing free school meals alleviates some of the pressure on struggling families and gives children the guarantee of a healthy meal every day.

“We have long called for free school meals to be extended to all children whose families are in receipt of universal credit. This is a simple, immediate step the government could take to ease the impact of the cost-of-living crisis which has made life even more difficult for many families.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Many children living in poverty miss out on free school meals under the current restrictive criteria. Since the pandemic and cost of living crisis we have heard more heartbreaking stories from members who have had to set up food banks, offer families supermarket vouchers, and fundraise to extend the number of pupils they can provide with free school meals.

“Teachers and school leaders are increasingly having to tackle the impact of poverty before they can even start teaching.

“We are clear that extending free school meals to all children in households in receipt of universal credit would provide a nutritional safety net which would make an enormous difference to children’s health, wellbeing and their ability to learn. It’s the right thing to do and we urge the government to fund this extension to free school meal eligibility as soon as possible.”

  • Cribb et al: The policy menu for school lunches: options and trade-offs in expanding free school meals in England, Institute for Fiscal Studies, March 2023: http://bit.ly/3zhp0tQ
  • DWP: National statistics: Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution, March 2023: http://bit.ly/3KeaGbA

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