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

By agency reporter
December 3, 2020

Prior to the pandemic, at least two in five school-age children – 1.3 million  – who lived below the UK’s poverty line were not entitled to free school meals, new analysis from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) shows. 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, particularly 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, to 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 1.2 million 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 is likely to be considerably less than this as not all 100,000 children will be below the income threshold.

CPAG has welcomed 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.

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:

  • Families 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.
  • 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.

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. 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.

* Read the Child Poverty Action Group briefing on free school meals here

* Child Poverty Action Group https://cpag.org.uk/


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