800,000 children in poverty not getting free school meals

Published on: 
09 June 2022
  • 1 in 3 school-age children in England living in poverty (800,000) miss out on free school meals despite cost of living struggles of families.
  • The main causes are restrictive eligibility criteria and lack of universal provision.
  • Government action in England lags far behind Scotland and Wales, where government funding means primary schools are moving towards free school meals for all children.
  • Child Poverty Action Group calls for an urgent extension of free school meals to all families receiving benefits and for progress towards universal provision.

New analysis by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), based on free school meals data released today by the Department for Education, shows that children in poverty in England continue to be overlooked by government measures, with over 1 in 3 (800,000) children in poverty not qualifying for free school meals. These figures come as the cost of living crisis continues to worsen and cause hardship.

While Scotland and Wales are stepping up support for families by moving to a universal model of free school meals provision in primary schools, England lags far behind and continues to means-test the provision using restrictive eligibility criteria.

To be eligible for free school meals, a household on universal credit in England must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits), regardless of the number of children in the family. This low threshold means that many children from working families in poverty aren’t entitled to free school meals, despite being unable to meet the costs.

The charity warns that children are going hungry as a result of a lack of action on free school meals, and is calling for immediate changes to make sure all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits can access a vital meal each day. It is also calling for a move towards universal provision of free school meals, an approach that would increase take-up and reduce stigma.

Kate Anstey, head of the UK Cost of the School Day programme at Child Poverty Action Group, said:

"We know families are being left to make impossible decisions, with many parents simply unable to afford lunches but desperately not wanting their children to go without. Food is vital to children’s health, wellbeing and learning, and the government cannot continue to stand by while children in poverty go hungry at lunchtime. No other part of the school day is means-tested in this way – universal free school meals should simply be a fundamental part of going to school."

Last week, a letter from school and education unions representing a million teachers and education specialists was sent to the chancellor Rishi Sunak and the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, demanding action on free school meals and denouncing the restrictive means-test.


Notes to editors:

  • Methodology:

The poverty measure used is relative after housing costs (AHC). The estimated number of children in poverty who missed out on FSM was calculated using Households Below Average Income 2019/20. From that survey data, entitlement can be calculated based on the earnings of the household and the various eligibility criteria for different means-tested benefits, accounting for the migration of households on to universal credit.

There will be some households who currently earn above the eligibility criteria but because of transitional protection on universal credit, they are still eligible for FSM. The number of these households was calculated using data on the share of FSM eligible pupils in Wales who are covered by transitional protection (similar data does not exist publicly in England). Understanding Society was then used to estimate the number of these households who are above and below the poverty line.

It is important to note that the poverty figures are not from 2020/21 HBAI as the reduced sample means substantial uncertainty around the estimate, it also covers a period where emergency COVID social security measures reduced poverty temporarily. Now these measures have been lifted, the poverty rate has risen to around pre-COVID levels (see Resolution Foundation’s Living Standards Outlook 2022 for more details). 

Children not covered by means-tested FSM but covered by universal infant FSM are not included in the 800,000 as they are receiving free lunches.

  • Note on free school meals in Scotland:

The Scottish government is gradually rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils. Pupils from Primary 1 to 5 are now eligible, with the full roll-out all the way to Primary 7 expected to be completed later in the parliamentary term.

  • Note on free school meals in Wales:

The Welsh government has committed to rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils by September 2024 using a phased approach, starting with the youngest pupils from September 2022.

  • Note on free school meals in England:

In England, all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 currently receive a free meal each day (this is referred to as universal infant free school meals or UIFSM). After that, provision of free school meals is means-tested, with the threshold to get free school meals being a combined household income of £7,400 or less before benefits. 

  • Note on transitional protection:

Since 1 April 2018, transitional protections have been in place which will continue during the roll out of Universal Credit. This has meant that pupils eligible for free school meals on or after 1 April 2018 retain their free school meals eligibility even if their circumstances change. If a child is eligible for free school meals, they’ll remain eligible until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) they’re in on 31 March 2023.

  • The letter from school leaders can be found here.


CPAG media contact:

Léa Corban on [email protected] and 07816 909302.