Universal credit and free school meals | CPAG

Universal credit and free school meals

01 October 2018
Issue 266 (October 2018)

Mark Willis reviews how universal credit (UC) can give entitlement to free school meals.

As the roll-out of the full service nears completion, more and more families with children will find themselves on UC. But what does this mean for eligibility to free school meals? The situation varies throughout Great Britain, and local authorities have discretion not to charge for meals at all.


In England, all children are entitled to free school meals (ie, lunches) in the first three years of primary school, regardless of income, but for later years the person responsible for the child must receive a qualifying benefit. UC was added to the list of qualifying benefits in 2013.1 However, following a consultation, an amendment was made to introduce an earnings threshold for UC with effect from 1 April 2018, with the explanation that this was as planned to target the most disadvantaged families.2 In essence, the earnings threshold is net earnings not exceeding £7,400 a year, but eligibility is determined by first looking at earnings received in the last complete UC assessment period immediately before the application for free school meals. If the threshold is exceeded, then combined earnings in the last two and three assessment periods are considered, as follows:

  • £616.67 in the last assessment period; or
  • £1,233.34 in the last two assessment periods; or
  • £1,850 in the last three assessment periods. The three-month period allows for some fluctuation in earnings or issues with weekly or four-weekly pay received twice in one monthly assessment period.
Transitional protection

Transitional protection to free school meals in England applies in the following situations:3

  • any child who was eligible for free school meals on 31 March 2018 whose parent was in receipt of UC regardless of earnings, whether or not s/he ceases to be entitled to UC;
  • any child who becomes eligible for free school meals after 31 March 2018 whose parent is in receipt of UC with earnings below the threshold, regardless of whether subsequent earnings exceed the threshold or s/he ceases to be entitled to UC.

In these cases, eligibility for free school meals continues until the child completes the stage of education (primary, secondary or further) s/he is at on 31 March 2022. This protection also applies to those who were eligible or become eligible for free school meals in receipt of other qualifying benefits, whether or not they cease to be entitled to the qualifying benefits. Government guidance for schools is clear that during the roll-out of UC, once a child is eligible s/he does not lose entitlement to free school meals and no further eligibility checks will be required.4">www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-school-meals-guidance-for-school... The key for advisers is to ensure that people apply for free school meals, even during a short period of eligibility, as this will give the child ongoing entitlement for the next four years or more.


In Wales, free school breakfasts are provided to all children in primary schools, but free school lunches are provided to families in receipt of qualifying benefits only. UC was added to the list of qualifying benefits in 2013 and there is currently no earnings threshold.5 However, under a consultation which closed on 14 September, the Welsh government is proposing to introduce an annualised earned income threshold of £7,400 for UC from January 2019, with transitional protection to 2022 or until the child completes her/his current phase of education.6">https://beta.gov.wales/eligibility-free-school-meals


In Scotland, all primary 1 to 3 children are entitled to free school meals (ie, lunches). UC was added as a qualifying benefit in 2013. However, from 1 August 2017, a threshold was introduced for UC, so that earned income must not exceed £610 in the assessment period immediately preceding the application for a free school meal.7

There is no transitional protection for families who lost or subsequently lose entitlement. Families with fluctuating earnings may therefore lose out if the local authority requires them to reapply, whether this is on a monthly basis or at the start of each term or academic year. The requirement to report a change in income or reapply appears to be at the local authority’s discretion.

Local authorities have the power from 1 April 2018 to provide food or drink to other pupils who do not qualify for free school meals. Most local authorities do not refer to any wider eligibility in their information on free school meals, and the explanatory note did not mention use of discretion on hardship grounds or protection for those who lose eligibility.8

Common issues

‘Earned income’ (ie, earnings) is defined in regulations 51– 64 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, SI No.376 (which include rules on surplus earnings, notional earned income and the minimum income floor). The same threshold applies whether the claim is a single claim or a couple claim.

Unearned income does not affect eligibility for free school meals as long as the claimant is still in receipt of UC. However, many local authorities in their information and application forms simply refer to ‘income’. Some local authorities do not appear to have updated their information to include the earnings threshold or UC at all. The ongoing protection for eligible children in England is not well publicised. The potential for confusion could lead to families not applying for free school meals and losing out on this important support, worth around £400 a year per child.


Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.

  • 1. The Free School Lunches and Milk (Universal Credit) (England) Order 2013, SI No.650 (Explanatory Memorandum)
  • 2. The Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018, SI No.148
  • 3. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 (Commencement No.30 and Transitory Provisions) Order 2018, SI No.145
  • 4. 5. The Free School Lunches and Milk (Universal Credit) (Wales) Order 2013, SI No.2021 (W.199)
  • 6. 7. The Welfare Reform (Consequential Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2017, SI No.182
  • 8. Explanatory notes to Education (Scotland) Act 2016