For children living in poverty, school should be a place where they can access learning and essential opportunities in the same way as their peers. Free school meals should be available so children can eat during their school day without any worry and parents have one less thing to think about. That way, children can focus on learning, playing and fully participating in their education. Unfortunately, for more than a third of children in poverty in the UK, access to a free daily meal at school is denied.
How can one million children in the UK miss out on free school meals, despite living in poverty?
The biggest culprit is the highly restrictive eligibility criteria. Across the UK, the conditions for a household to qualify for free school meals are linked to the household’s benefits and income, but are too narrow. Children in poverty who don't qualify for free school meals typically come from working families who earn too much money to claim free school meals, but not enough to escape from the grip of poverty. Certain types of benefits also preclude access, such as working tax credits in England and Wales.
Here is how Howie P, a single working parent, described her family's situation:
"We have no FSM support, this causes problems as we are a low-income family. I am a single parent and self-employed with a super precarious and changeable income, but receipt of working tax credit automatically means we don't qualify. It's been like this for years. In school, this means that my children are not flagged up as struggling as many schools use FSMs as a measure of family circumstances."
In England and Wales, a household on universal credit must earn less than £7,400 per year to be eligible for free school meals. In Scotland, they must earn less than £7,320, while in Northern Ireland, the threshold is higher at £14,000. These income limits are far too low and don't take into account the number of children a family has. This also creates cliff edges as parents can become worse off if they start earning more: for example, a lone parent who goes from working 15 hours a week to working 17 hours a week would see their children suddenly lose eligibility for free school meals. Paying for their children's school lunches every day would cost them much more than the extra income they got from working more hours.
To ensure that children living in poverty receive a free daily meal at school, we must urgently broaden these eligibility criteria, and extend free school meals to all households on universal credit or equivalent benefits. Beyond this urgent change, the UK should aspire to a universal approach, where every single child would get a free school meal. The universal approach has many proven benefits, including tackling inequalities, boosting learning and attainment, reducing poverty-related stigma, and supporting children's health and wellbeing. Scotland is already moving in that direction: all primary school pupils in Scotland will soon benefit from free school meals.
Regardless of their household income, we would hope that all children have the same opportunities to access education once they're inside the school gates. Sadly, this is simply not the case and if we are serious about making school a more equal experience for pupils, decisive action on free school meals is needed.
Read our new report, Fixing Lunch: The case for expanding free school meals.