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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 UK, guaranteeing the poorest children a hot and nutritious meal five days a week. 

Charities warn the scheme does not go nearly far enough to help vulnerable children in the cost of living crisis. There are 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals. 

As the February half term nears, there are fears that many families will struggle to provide meals for their children without the safety net of free school meals. The support families get largely depends on where they live. 

Here’s everything you need to know about how to apply for free school meals, whether your child is eligible, if they are available over the school holidays 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 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.  In Northern Ireland, the threshold is almost twice that of England’s and Scotland’s at £14,000.

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 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 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. 

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?

Recent research has found free school meals could actually generate billions for the UK economy.

Commissioned by the Impact for Urban Health and analysed by PwC, the analysis found for every £1 invested in providing meals to all children in households on universal credit, £1.38 would be returned over the next 20 years through “core benefits” across social, health and educational areas. 

This would result in £8.9billion for the economy in core benefits, helping with savings in schools, increased lifetime earnings and contributions, increased savings on food costs for families and savings for the NHS.

A further £16.3bn of indirect benefits could come through wider economic and supply chain gains, such as growing the school food economy through expansion of school catering employment opportunities, resulting in £25.2bn total potential benefits. 

Such an expansion would feed an extra 800,000 children, a move campaigners have long called for but the government has resisted.

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. 

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 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 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 two. 

Will free school meals vouchers be offered in the school holidays?

The government is not directly funding food vouchers this year. Your child might be eligible for free school meals vouchers over the Christmas holidays, but it depends on where you live and if your local council has a scheme. 

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 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.

What did Marcus Rashford do with free school meals in the UK?

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.

Working on behalf of his Child Food Poverty Taskforce, he then wrote to the prime minister demanding free school meals be extended to all children whose families receive universal credit, regardless of income.

He led the taskforce in calling for the holiday school meals scheme – which saw vouchers and parcels given to eligible children when schools were closed during the pandemic – to be extended for another three years. Making free lunches and the Healthy Start milk and veg scheme available during holidays would cost around £1.1bn, they estimated, roughly one per cent of the current education budget.

“Equality of opportunity” begins with guaranteeing children can eat well “at least once a day”, the joint letter read.

“Better jobs are the route out of poverty, and the virtue of these children’s food schemes is that when working families shore up their income they can buy school and holiday meals themselves.”

But Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, rejected the calls ahead of the autumn budget in October 2021. He said furlough ending at the start of the month meant other support schemes, including free school meals provision outside of term time, should end too. Families can rely on holiday and activities clubs instead, Sunak added.

What is next for the free school meals campaign?

Campaigners have consistently said that the government is not doing enough to expand the free school meals scheme. In June, 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 £544m 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”.

Food charities and organisations including the Food Foundation, Chefs in Schools and School Food Matters launched a joint campaign in September calling on the government to urgently extend eligibility to all children from families in receipt of universal credit. 

The campaign – Feed the Future – was  backed by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. 

Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, is calling on the government to provide more meals to every child in primary school. She said this “would ease the pressure for every family, and help ensure every child has the basics to learn, grow and thrive”. 

Her Free School Meals for All Bill will have its second reading in Parliament in March. The bill was supposed to have its second reading in January but it has been delayed due to running out of time.

Sultana claims Conservatives have “blocked the passage” of the bill. “It’s utterly disgraceful that the Tory government has chosen to block this move to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils in England,” she said.

“This bill would tackle the injustice of child poverty in Britain, where around a million kids living in poverty don’t have access to free school meals, and it would bring England into line with Scotland and Wales, who are already putting it into practice. If the government was really serious about ‘levelling-up’, this is what they’d do.”

You can ask your MP to back the bill here. 

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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