Two in five UK children under the poverty line are not eligible for free school meals

Published on: 
03 December 2020

Prior to the pandemic, at least two in five school-age children - 1.3million - who lived below the UK’s poverty line were not entitled to free school meals, new analysis from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) shows. All of these children are in families in low paid work but do not qualify because of stringent eligibility criteria, the analysis finds.

CPAG estimates that another 100,000 school children across the UK (who are not covered by universal infant free school meals) are in families with no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status. Many of these children will be living well below the poverty line but are not usually eligible for means-tested free school meals.

The charity says the findings show that the income thresholds for eligibility have fallen far too low and fail to support many families, in particular those living in in-work poverty. It is urging Ministers to go beyond providing temporary food aid to low-income families in the holidays and at a minimum take up Marcus Rashford’s call to extend eligibility for free school meals to all families on universal credit or equivalent benefits – better still, make free school meals universal for all school-aged children in the UK, helping to remove stigma, support struggling families and ensure all children can benefit from the learning and health outcomes. CPAG also calls for the recent temporary extension of eligibility to families below the income threshold who have no recourse to public funds, to be made permanent.

In England 1.2m children below the poverty line are ineligible for free school meals, in Scotland 45,000, in Wales 70,000 and in Northern Ireland 20,000.

Expanding eligibility for free school meals to include all UK families receiving universal credit (or equivalent benefits) would make 2.2 million children newly eligible at a cost of £900 million a year. A permanent expansion of eligibility to families with no recourse to public funds would cost a maximum of £46 million per year but it’s likely to be a lot less than this as not all 100,000 children will be below the income threshold.

CPAG welcomes the SNP’s recent pledge to provide universal free school lunches and breakfasts to all primary school pupils in Scotland if they are re-elected next year. Removing the means test from school meals greatly reduces the financial burden on many families. Universal infant free school meals are already available to all children in England and Scotland in the first three years of primary school. This policy ensures that infant children are provided with a balanced meal each day, helping to boost their learning, health and wellbeing, as well as supporting families with the cost of living.

The current eligibility criteria for FSM varies slightly across the four nations (see below).

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:

The evidence on the benefits of free school meals is really strong. Children’s school results improve when entitlement is expanded and the pressure on family budgets is eased - so struggling parents are better placed to meet other essential living costs. Yet more than a million children in poverty are not getting a free school meal. That isn’t right – not in normal times, never mind in a pandemic when so many are seeing sudden drops in income.

Marcus Rashford is right to demand lasting solutions for children in poverty, including an extension of free school meals to all families on universal credit. The public support for him suggests that few would quibble over providing a £2.30-per-day meal for every child as a basic entitlement. Free school meals won’t end child poverty alone but they will go a good way towards protecting children from hardship and helping struggling families to stay afloat. Now more than ever as we head towards a coronavirus recession, children need that daily layer of protection.“

Eligibility criteria for universal credit and tax credit claimants:

Universal credit claimants:

in England and Wales on universal credit (both working and non-working) are eligible for FSMs if their family income is below £7,400 per year after tax and before benefits are taken into account. Families lose eligibility if they work 17 hours a week or more on the national minimum wage. In Scotland the income threshold is £7,320 per year. In Northern Ireland the earnings threshold is higher at £14,000 or less per year for universal credit claimants.

Tax credit claimants:

In England and Wales, families receiving child tax credit (but not working tax credit) – are eligible if their annual gross income is no more than £16,190 per year. You cannot claim FSM in England or Wales if you receive working tax credit, even if you live below the poverty line. In Scotland families are entitled to free school meals if they receive child tax credit (but not working tax credit) and their income is below £16,105 or they claim both child and working tax credit and they have an income below £7,330. In Northern Ireland families are entitled if they receive child tax credit and/or working tax credit and their annual taxable income is below £16,190 per year.

Notes to editors:

  • In 2013, when the universal credit roll-out began, the Government introduced a temporary measure making all families in receipt of universal credit eligible for free school meals (FSM). The temporary measure was designed to protect families from losing out on entitlements during the initial stages of the roll-out. However, since then new eligibility criteria has been introduced in the different nations, with the result that only certain households receiving universal credit are eligible. In England and Wales, ‘Transitional protection’ is in place while universal credit is being rolled-out so that no individual child will lose FSM during the rollout of universal credit, and once the rollout is complete, children will have their eligibility protected until the end of their current school phase. But as CPAG’s analysis shows, despite the transitional protection, 1.3 million children in poverty are without eligibility for FSM.
  • Providing universal free school meals to every schoolchild in the UK would cost an additional £2 billion per year compared to the current status quo. CPAG’s poverty and free school meal eligibility calculations are based on the government’s Households Below Average Income statistics, where poverty is defined as a household with an equivalised income below 60% of the after housing cost median income. Results are scaled to match the total pupils and pupils eligible for Free School Meals provided by administrative data from each nation (ONS, Stat Wales, Scottish Government and Department for Education in Northern Ireland). Results are adjusted so that pupils already receiving universal FSM (England: Reception – Year 2; Scotland Reception – Year 2, Glasgow Year 3) are not included in the additional pupils covered/cost calculations
  • Cost calculations are based on eligibility calculated from Households Below Average Income with adjustments for the recent rise in households on Universal Credit; a cost of £460 per pupil per year, and an estimated take-up of 78% for universal free school meals and 90% for extensions of means-tested benefits eligibility criteria. The estimate for the number of school-aged children with no Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) calculations are based on figures from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford When families have NRPF it is usually because they are waiting for permanent, settled status in the UK.
  • In Scotland, a universal approach to free school meals is gaining support across the political spectrum. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has also pledged to introduce free school meals at both breakfast and lunch for all primary pupils if his party gains power next year. The Scottish Greens are committed to providing all pupils with access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch, including during school holidays and the Scottish Labour 2019 manifesto also committed to extending free school meals to include all school years and during holidays.
  • CPAG’s updated briefing on free school meals can be found at this link:

CPAG media contact: Léa Corban, 020 7812 5237