Wales: Over half of children in poverty missing out on free school meals

Published on: 
16 October 2020
  • New analysis from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) finds that over half of children in Wales who live below the UK poverty line are not entitled to free school meals.
  • Of the 129,000 school-age children living below the poverty line in Wales, over 70,000 are not eligible, mainly because their parents are in low-paid jobs which take them over the eligibility threshold.
  • In addition, nearly 6,000 children in Wales are not normally eligible because their families have no recourse to public funds.
  • CPAG calls for urgent action to extend eligibility for free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits) and make permanent the extension to families with no recourse to public funds.
  • Expanding eligibility would help struggling families to cope, improve educational outcomes and tackle in-work poverty.

According to CPAG analysis, the reason that so many children living in poverty in Wales are not eligible for free school meals is because the large majority of them live in low-paid working families who are claiming working tax credits or universal credit but whose earnings take them over the threshold.

Families on universal credit are eligible for free school meals if their family income is below £7,400 (before benefits are taken into account). This cut-off excludes over half of children living in poverty in Wales and creates a cliff edge for many parents. When families reach a certain number of working hours (17 hours a week at the national minimum wage) they lose their eligibility. So families can end up worse off if their earnings increase, as they lose out on free school meals worth over £400 per child per year, and remain trapped in poverty. Missing out on free school meals also means missing out on other benefits such as the Pupil Development Grant - Access (PDG-A) which helps families buy school uniform, equipment and sports kit (worth up to £125 a year, and £200 for Year 7 learners).

CPAG is publishing its analysis today as part of Challenge Poverty Week (12 – 18 October), and calls for urgent action on free school meals to help struggling families keep their heads above water. The charity wants universal provision of free school meals for all pupils, which would cost £130 million per year, but as an interim measure is calling for urgent investment in:

  • Expanding eligibility for free school meals to include all families receiving universal credit (or equivalent benefits). CPAG estimates this would make 145,000 children in Wales newly eligible and would cost £60 million a year.
  • Extending free school meals entitlements to families with no recourse to public funds. This was introduced on a temporary basis during school closures, but should be made permanent. It could benefit around 5,900 children in Wales and cost £2.6 million a year.
  • Introducing universal infant free school meals across Wales. This policy exists in England and Scotland and has proven benefits for children and families. It would mean 80,000 additional infant children could have a free lunch each day, and would cost £30 million a year.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:

“It’s not right that in a classroom of 25 pupils in Wales, 7 children are living in poverty, and 4 of them are not even eligible for free school meals. School should be a happy and inclusive experience for all pupils, but worrying about the cost of eating at school can put a great strain on children and families. It can cause children to experience shame and stigma, and put additional pressure on parents already struggling to pay their bills or rent on precarious incomes.

The financial impact of the pandemic has hit low-income families particularly hard. Providing free school meals is an effective way for the Welsh Government to help hard-up families cope with the financial pressures they are facing. Now is the time to support families with children and give them one less thing to worry about by introducing universal provision of free school meals, or at a minimum, ensuring provision of free school meals to all families on Universal Credit or with no recourse to public funds. ”

Parents who shared their experience with CPAG said:

“Being a low income family we can't afford to get ink for our printer, and could just about put food on the table, but we’re not entitled to any help at all” – Mother with two children, Aberdare, Rhondda Cynon Taf

“It seems the parents in that category [working but living on a low income] are not entitled to much at all, but having three children at home and having to work is causing a lot of additional pressure on working single-parent families” – Single mother with three children, Neath Port Talbot

Notes to editors:

  • Case studies may be available for interview via CPAG's press office on 07816 909302
  • The full briefing can be found here
  • 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 Stats Wales.
  • 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 £2.30 per meal, 190 school days a 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 in Wales with no Recourse to Public Funds calculations are based on figures from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford
  • In Wales, nearly seven in every 10 poor children live in working families (prior to the pandemic). Source: Welsh Government Child Poverty Progress Report 2019.
  • Over two thirds of the 70,000 children in poverty in Wales who are not getting free school meals are in working families who are claiming working tax credits or universal credit but have earnings above the threshold.
  • About the UK Cost of the School Day project:
  • CPAG's UK Cost of the School Day project helps school communities identify and overcome cost barriers that shape and limit children's opportunities at school. We work with children, parents, carers and school staff to identify these cost barriers and help them take action to remove them. The Cost of the School Day was started in 2014 by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland. It has now expanded to England, Wales and new parts of Scotland with funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and working in close partnership with Children North East to 'poverty proof' schools. In Wales, the UK Cost of the School Day project works in Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taf.

CPAG press office: 07816 909302