Behind the numbers: free school meals

Published on: 
08 December 2022
Written by: 

Tom Lee

Senior policy analyst

Recently, there have been lots of free school meals (FSMs) numbers floating around. But what do they all mean? And how can we piece them together?

Who gets FSMs?

Each of the devolved nations has responsibility for its own FSM policies, meaning different groups of children are eligible for FSMs in different parts of the UK.

Table 1 shows the difference between the nations. Universal FSMs refers to FSMs that are available to everybody in those school years. Means-tested FSMs refers to FSMs that are only available for children in families in receipt of certain means-tested benefits, if their non-social security income (generally earnings) is below a certain threshold.

Table 1: FSM provision across the UK1

  England Wales Scotland Northern Ireland
Universal FSMs

Infants (ages 4-7)

Primary* (ages 4-11) 

Primary* (ages 4-11)


Means-tested FSMs

Universal credit threshold

Earnings below £7,400

Earnings below £7,400

Earnings below £7,920

Earnings below £14,000

Working tax credit threshold

Cannot claim FSMs

Cannot claim FSMs

Earnings below £7,920

Earnings below £16,190

Child tax credit threshold (in families not claiming working tax credit)

Earnings below £16,190

Earnings below £16,190

Earnings below £17,005

Earnings below £16,190

*This policy has not yet been fully rolled-out but there are commitments in both countries to do so

No two nations have exactly the same eligibility criteria for FSMs. Scotland and Wales have the widest coverage of universal FSMs. While Northern Ireland does not have any universal FSMs, but has the highest earnings threshold for means-tested FSMs.

FSMs are also made available to children in families with no recourse to public funds. In England, families can access them subject to an income threshold. In Wales and Scotland this provision is discretionary and made available via local authorities.

What about children in poverty?

Currently, millions of children across the UK benefit from receiving FSMs. However, many more miss out because of overly restrictive eligibility criteria. And subsequently miss out on other support that is triggered by free school meals eligibility eg, additional school funding.

Poverty is a measure of household income, which takes into account earnings, social security income, housing costs and household size. It therefore does not fit neatly into FSM eligibility criteria or proposed extensions to eligibility. Nonetheless, we are able to estimate, using survey data, how many children currently living in poverty are not eligible for any form of FSM across the UK. Table 2 shows the number and share of school-age children in poverty who are not eligible for FSMs. 

Table 2: Number and share of children in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals


Number of children in poverty who are not eligible for FSMs

Share of school-aged children in poverty who are not eligible for FSMs










Northern Ireland



*After full roll-out of universal primary FSMs

We can see that England has the highest share of children in poverty who miss out on FSMs. This is because Scotland and Wales have more generous universal FSM policies, while Northern Ireland has a more generous earnings threshold for means-tested FSMs.

What can we do about it?

It is easy to reduce the number of children in poverty who miss out by increasing the FSM eligibility criteria. Until recently, half of all children in poverty in Wales missed out on FSMs. By introducing universal primary FSMs, this figure fell to 19 per cent.

The three main calls for extending FSMs are:

  1. Extend to all children in families on means-tested benefits (universal credit or equivalent)
  2. Extend to all primary children
  3. Extend to all children – universal FSMs

In England, extending to all children in families on means-tested benefits would mean about another 1,300,000 children are able to receive FSMs. This is more than the 800,000 children in poverty who miss out, as there are some families on universal credit (or equivalent) who are just above the poverty line. This would cost around £550 million and would be a way to ensure all children in low-income families can receive FSMs.

However, the best way to deliver free school meals is to make them free to all kids – as this makes the school day more equitable, makes sure all children get the same, high-quality meal, and ensures all children can make the most of their education. It would help reduce stigma around free lunches and poverty. It would also cost less than £2 billion, a small price to pay for a big investment in childhood and our country’s future.

  • 1. In addition to variation between the four constituent nations of the UK, there can be variation within nations. For instance, some London local authorities provide FSMs to all primary school pupils. There are also other rules around transitional protection and receiving working tax credit run-on.