19 Dec 2017

One million children living in poverty in England will miss out on free school meals under universal credit proposals, new findings from The Children’s Society reveal today.

As universal credit has been rolling out, all families in receipt of the new benefit have been automatically entitled to free school meals. However, the government is planning to introduce means testing for free school meals under universal credit, which The Children’s Society warns will fail to reach one million children in poverty and will create a ‘cliff-edge’ where many families would be better off taking a pay cut.

Figures from The Children’s Society show that once a family with one child passes the £7,400 threshold, they would need to earn £1,124 a year more, the equivalent of working 2.4 hours more each week at national living wage, to make up for the loss in free school meals.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school. There are significant, proven benefits for children’s health, education and their futures in making sure they have a healthy lunch every day, but at least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced.

Continuing to provide free school meals for all children on universal credit would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise. Universal credit was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.

“If the government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering free school meals for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.”

The regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria. In London 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals, in the West Midlands with 130,000 children and the North West 130,000 children.

If the government continued to offer free school meals to all children whose families claim universal credit, around two million children from poor and low-income families in England would benefit once roll out is completed. Under the benefits system that universal credit is replacing, only families where parents are working too few hours to claim working tax credits are entitled to free school meals. The government proposals will mean that just 700,000 of the 1,700,000 school children in poverty who could be helped, will receive free school meals.

The consultation on free school meals entitlement under universal credit closes on 11 January 2018. The Children’s Society is asking supporters to submit responses to the consultation via its website at: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/fsm.



Notes to editors

  • Costing based on assumption that school meals cost around £400 a year. For a family with 3 children – the parent would need additional gross earnings of £3,582 (7.7 hours per week extra at NLW of £9 p/h in 2020).
  • Numbers of children exclude children from reception and years 1 and 2 as they already receive universal free school meals. Uptake of free school meals by those entitled to tax credits is at around 65% [based on calculations by the Children’s Society using data from tax credits and the Department for Education], this is not expected to change unless more is done to address stigma and other issues preventing full take-up.
  • Full regional breakdowns of the children in poverty who are missing out on free school meals are available on request.
  • The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side.