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Social Justice

Free school meals: Everything you need to know

We outline free school meals eligibility, how much it costs, how children can access them, and whether they are available over the holidays

Free school meals are a lifeline for millions of families across the country. As the cost of living crisis pushes thousands into poverty, the scheme is crucial in the fight to stop children going hungry.

Campaigners have repeatedly urged the government to expand the school meals scheme to make sure that every child is guaranteed a hot and nutritious meal five days a week.

Demand has reached record highs and is only expected to soar in the cost of living crisis. As children head back to school for a new term, hundreds of schools across the country have set up food banks so that families have enough to eat. 

Here’s everything you need to know about how to apply for free school meals, whether your child is eligible and how the scheme differs depending on where you live. 

Who gets free school meals in the UK?

Whether your child is eligible for free school meals depends on their age, where you live and your income. Your child may be eligible for free school meals if you are claiming any of the following benefits:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • The guaranteed element of pension credit
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Working tax credit run-on – paid for four weeks after stopping work
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 
  • Child tax credit, as long as you don’t also receive working tax credit and earn no more than £16,190 (£17,005 in Scotland). In Scotland, you can get free school meals if you’re on child tax credit and working tax credit, but you have to be earning less than £7,920
  • Universal credit, if someone applied since April 2018 and their income is less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits). If someone applied for UC before then, there is no income threshold. In Scotland, your monthly-earned income on UC must be lower than £660. 

Children who receive any of these benefits themselves are also eligible for school lunches. If you are 16 to 18 and in receipt of any of the benefits in your own right, you can claim free school meals. 

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What are universal free school meals? 

Many of the youngest children in the UK are also eligible for free meals regardless of their parents’ income. In England, all children in reception, year one and year two are guaranteed a free lunch (and sometimes milk) as part of the universal infant free school meals scheme. 

In Scotland, children at local council schools can get free school lunches during term-time in primary one to five. 

The Welsh government has announced that all children in primary school will receive free school meals by 2024 –  currently, the majority of local councils are offering meals to every child in reception. The aim is that every child in reception, year one and year two will be given meals by April 2023.

Universal free school meals are not offered in Northern Ireland. 

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What is pupil premium?

Schools get extra funding, known as pupil premium, for every child who is eligible for a free school meal. Schools can then use this funding for activities like booster classes, educational trips and after-school clubs. It only covers children eligible for benefits-related meals, not the younger children who are getting universal free school meals.

How many children get free school meals?

Just under 1.9 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures

This is 22.5 per cent of state school pupils. Demand is highest in the North East, where around 29.1 per cent of children currently qualify for free meals, compared to just 17.6  per cent in the South East.

Around 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free school meals – that is around 30 per cent of the total school population. 

Just over 100,000 pupils were eligible for free school meals in Wales in the academic year 2021/2022. But with the new plans, approximately 272,000 primary school pupils in Wales are set to get free lunches by 2024.

According to the Scottish Government’s most recent data from the 2021 pupil census, just over 250,000 pupils in Scotland in primary one to seven are eligible for free school meals. 

How much do free school meals cost?

The government announced in June 2022 that the funding rate for universal infant free school meals would be increased. But it is only increasing funding only by 7p per pupil – from £2.34 to £2.41 per meal for children in reception, year 1 and year 2.

That’s a rise of around 3 per cent, less than a third of the current inflation rate. It works out at around £457.90 per pupil per year, an increase from £444.60 in 2021 to 2022. 

Campaigners have consistently said that the government is not doing enough to expand the free school meals scheme. Henry Dimbleby, the lead adviser on the government’s national food strategy, recommended the scheme be extended to all children under 16 living in households earning less than £20,000. 

This would have cost £544 million a year and would have meant feeding an additional 1.1 million children. But the government has ignored this recommendation. Green MP Caroline Lucas described the strategy as an “unforgivably wasted opportunity”.

How does free school meals eligibility vary in different parts of the UK?

The Welsh Government has committed to offering every primary school pupil a free school meal by 2024. Children in reception class are set to receive free school meals from September. By April 2023, the majority of children in years 1 and 2 will also receive free meals.

In a similar move, the Scottish Government has announced that free school lunches will be offered for primary 4 and 5 children. There will also be targeted support during school holidays for all eligible primary and secondary children and young people.This will start in July for around 145,000 primary and secondary children and young people from low income households.

The rules for eligibility according to benefits claimed apply in Scotland too. However you can also apply for free school meals for your child if you receive child tax credit and working tax credit and your income is less than £7,500. The household threshold for universal credit claimants is £625 a month.

In Northern Ireland, that threshold is £14,000 a year. Someone can also claim school lunches if their child has special educational needs and requires a special diet, or if they board at a special school.

In some areas, different kinds of financial hardship – like having no recourse to public funds because of immigration status or experiencing the five-week wait for a first universal credit payment – mean a child might still get a free meal at school. This could also apply if a child has been looked after, had a Kinship Care Order or had a Guardianship Order since they were aged 2. 

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Are free school meals offered in the school holidays? 

In 2020, the government directly funded vouchers and food packages due to the pandemic but that scheme will not be going ahead again this year. Instead, it is a lottery postcode as the support available largely depends on where you live. 

Many councils across England have decided to create their own meal schemes during the school holidays, financed by the household support fund.  You can find out more about what support is available in your area through your local council’s website.

The government ran the holiday activities and food programme again this year. The scheme, funded by the government and delivered by local councils, provides healthy food and activities for children who are eligible for free meals.

The Scottish Government’s website says: “If you get free school meals you may also be able to get help during the school holidays.” 

Councils across Scotland are offering free school meal payments to households on eligible benefits. Support will be offered until at least Easter 2023.

The Welsh Government announced earlier this year that it had invested £21.4m to make free school meals available in the Easter and summer holidays. 

When were free school meals first introduced?

Free school meals have a lengthy history in the UK. The Education Act in 1906 allowed councils to provide food to pupils, but they rarely did. Only in 1944 was it legislated that they must give good quality, free meals to children. This was shortly followed by a similar ruling for free milk in 1946.

The Conservative government, under Margaret Thatcher, ended the free milk provided for all children. Her government also retracted nutrition requirements for school lunches. It triggered a downturn in the quality of food children from worse-off backgrounds had access to. Finally in 2001, school meals were once again held to national nutritional standards.

During the pandemic, a spotlight was fixed on the system. A series of scandals, a patchy voucher scheme and last minute government U-turns while schools were closed in lockdown meant many children across the country have, at times, gone without knowing where their next meal could come from.

In 2020, footballer Marcus Rashford fought alongside charities and successfully convinced the government to offer meal vouchers over the summer holidays to 1.3 million children in England.

How do I apply for free school meals?

In most areas people can apply through their local authority’s website. You can find out more about how to apply if you live in England through the government’s website here, which will link you to your council’s free school meals page. There’s a different process to apply depending on where you live. Find out more information on how to apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If you’re not sure what support you might be eligible for, it’s worth contacting your council directly. You can also contact Citizens Advice or speak to your school if you need extra financial support and want to be shown in the right direction.

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