We outline free school meals eligibility, how much it costs, how children can access them, and whether they are available over the holidays
by: Isabella McRae, Hannah Westwater
26 Jun 2023
Children across the country are eligible for free school meals. Image: Pexels
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.
But charities have warned the scheme does not go nearly far enough to help vulnerable children in the cost of living crisis. Around 800,000 children are living in poverty but are not eligible for free lunches, according to the Food Foundation. It is largely a postcode lottery, with some areas of the UK providing meals to all primary school children while others are left behind.
Campaigners, politicians and charities are calling on the government to go further and make free meals available for all primary school children across England.
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-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 meals if you get 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 and Scotland 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.
If your child is not eligible for free meals based on your income, they may still get universal free school meals if they are under a certain age and living in certain parts of the UK.
Who gets 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.
London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has announced free meals will be provided in all primary schools across London for the 2023/2024 academic year. It is a £130 million scheme which will fund free meals for 270,000 children who do not already receive free meals.
In Scotland, children at local council schools can get free lunches during term-time in primary one to five. The Scottish government has committed to a phased approach to expanding universal free school meals to all children in primary school. The next step for 2023/2024 is funding meals for all primary six and seven pupils in receipt of the Scottish child payment.
The Welsh government has announced that all children in primary school will receive meals by 2024 – currently, the majority of local councils are offering meals to every child in reception, year one and year two.
The next phase to include years three and four will begin in September 2023, and then years five and six will be eligible for free school meals in April 2024.
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 over two million children are eligible for free meals in England, according to the latest government figures.
This is 23.8% of state school pupils. Demand is highest in the northeast, where around 30.4% of children currently qualify for free meals, compared to just 18.8% in the South East.
An additional 270,000 pupils in London will be eligible for free school meals in London during the 2023/2024 academic year.
Around 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free meals – that is around 30% of the total school population.
Just over 100,000 pupils were eligible for free school meals in Wales in the academic year 2021/2022. This has already grown by the tens of thousands, and all 272,000 primary school pupils in Wales are set to get free lunches by April 2024.
According to the Scottish Government’s most recent data, just over 360,000 pupils in Scotland in primary one to seven are eligible for free school meals. That is an increase of more than 100,000 on the previous year.
How much do free school meals cost?
Every free school meal costs the government around £2.41, according to the funding rate. That means every school day, the government is spending a maximum of £4.5m on free school meals in England. So each academic year, the government could spend around £877.5m on free meals (based on an average school year being 195 days).
The government announced in June 2022 that the funding rate for universal infant free school meals would be increased. But it only increased funding 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%, roughly a third of the current inflation rate. It works out at £457.90 per pupil per year, an increase from £444.60 in 2021 to 2022.
Increasing the funding rate by 10% to £2.87 would cost an extra £250 million a year. That rises to £300 million when extra funding for devolved nations is included, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).
Researchers also found that extending free school meals to all primary state school pupils in England would cost an additional £1 billion a year in the longer term.
Offering free meals to all primary and secondary pupils (up to Year 11) would cost an extra £2.5bn a year. And significant expansions in eligibility could also require the government to fund improvements to school kitchens and dining areas.
The free school meals scheme in London – feeding an additional 270,000 children – will cost the capital £130m for a year.
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 £8.9bn 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.
How does free school meals eligibility vary in different parts of the UK?
The eligibility for means-tested free school meals is the same in England and Wales.
The Welsh Government has committed to offering every primary school pupil free meals by 2024. The majority of children in reception and years 1 and 2 are already receiving free meals.
In a similar move, the Scottish Government has made free lunches universal for primary 4 and 5 children. Payments are made to cover school holidays for pupils in primary 1 to secondary 6 who are registered for free school meals.
In Scotland, you can also apply for free school meals for your child if you receive child tax credit or working tax credit and your income is less than £17,005. If you get both child credit and working tax credit, your income must be lower than £7,920 to receive free school meals. The household threshold for universal credit claimants is £660 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.
All children at state primary schools in London will get free school meals during the 2023/2024 academic year.
Will free school meals vouchers be offered in the school holidays?
The government does not directly fund free school meals or food vouchers over the school holidays. Your child might be offered them by your local council, but it 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 Mayor of London has announced an emergency funding package of more than £3.5m to help provide around 10 million free meals during school holidays and at weekends to low-income Londoners. That will continue until March 2024.
The government funds councils to deliver a ‘holiday activities and food’ scheme over the school holidays. Through this, councils provide healthy food and activities for children who are eligible for free meals. You can find out more about the scheme here.
The Scottish Government’s website says that 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, with support being offered in the Easter holidays.
In 2020, Wales guaranteed free school meals for eligible families during the school holidays. Individual local authorities decide how to administer the free meal provision, either by creating lunches or by providing vouchers or direct payments to families.
The Welsh Government has announced £9m has been provided to offer eligible pupils a free school meal up until the end of May half term holiday, including all bank holidays and school holidays during this period.
The government in Northern Ireland has axed “holiday hunger” payments for children entitled to free school meals. Families of 96,000 children have received payments of £27 every fortnight during the school holidays since 2020. But the scheme will no longer go ahead this Easter.
When were free school meals first introduced?
Free school meals have a lengthy history in the UK. In 1941, the first National School Meals policy was introduced, with dietary guidelines on protein, fat and calories.
Before this, 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.
In 1944, the provision of a school meal that was “suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day” and milk became a statutory duty for local authorities under the new Education Act.
But in June 1971 Margaret Thatcher, education secretary in Edward Heath’s government, put forward her plan to remove the provision of free school milk for over-sevens at junior school. Although unpopular with many, and leading to the jibe “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”, it became law in September.
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 1%of the 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.
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.
The mayor of London has called on the government to provide free school meals to all pupils – as he has done in the capital – but says ministers have “failed to act”.
“The cost of living crisis means families and children across our city are in desperate need of additional support,” Khan said. “I have repeatedly urged the government to provide free school meals to help already stretched families, but they have simply failed to act.”
Campaigners say more needs to be done to help those outside the capital. “This is a monumental step forward for safeguarding children’s diets, well-being and learning across the capital,” Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said. “However, outside of London, hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty still don’t qualify for a free school meal.
“Central government must now honour its levelling up commitment by investing in free school meal expansion for every community. We know this policy has resounding support in every corner of the UK.”
The National Education Union (NEU) is running a campaign No Child Left Behind, calling for free school meals for all children in primary school in England. Its week of action will see an open letter delivered to Rishi Sunak and signed by hundreds of organisations, charities, politicians and celebrities like Gary Lineker.
Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, has backed calls for 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 was set to have its second reading in Parliament in January and then March, but it has been delayed twice.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.”
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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