Posted: 23 February 2018

Changes to free school meals will hurt struggling families

For children from poorer families, the guarantee of a decent lunch each day can make a huge difference. Free school meals are intended to provide children with a proper meal when food may be tight at home. For some children this may be the only healthy cooked food they get - for others it can be their only meal of the day.

Eligibility for free school meals is determined by access to certain benefits. Universal Credit has gradually been replacing these old benefits, covering families both in and out of work.  But government changes to Universal Credit will mean a million children who are living in poverty in England still miss out on free school meals. 

Why is this a huge step backwards?

Up to now, all families receiving Universal Credit have been eligible for free school meals. If the government was to continue this policy, almost every child in poverty would receive a free school meal once Universal Credit is fully rolled out (expected by 2022).

Although the Government have in the past indicated that they would look at this policy again before the full roll out of Universal Credit, we and others had hoped the current government would take this golden opportunity to ensure that in future every child in poverty would get the free school meals they desperately need.

Instead, the Government wants to introduce a new earnings limit, so that families on Universal Credit earning more than £7,400 a year won’t be eligible for free school meals. This is a huge step backwards. Not only does this mean that those one million children in poverty who could benefit now won’t, it also fundamentally undermines one of the main reasons for introducing Universal Credit in the first place: to ensure that 'work always pays'.

The new rules will create a situation in the future where many working families will be punished for taking on extra hours or accepting a pay rise because they would have their free school meals taken away. These are worth around £400 a year per child – a huge sum if you’re on a low income.

Analysis we produced jointly with Child Poverty Action Group and academics at York University found this new poverty trap could affect around 280,000 low income working families in England, containing over 700,000 children.

What’s the government’s position?

The government believe that 50,000 more children overall will receive Free School Meals by the time Universal Credit is fully rolled out, than do in the present day. We have no reason to believe this is not the case – although they still say that some who would have been entitled under the old benefits will no longer be entitled under the new rules (once transitional protections end).

However, this will still mean that around one million children in poverty will not receive a Free School Meal.

Transitional Protection

It’s important to note that the government is putting transitional protection in place so that school children currently getting free school meals do not lose them. While this is welcome, we are concerned about the long term impacts of the policy, which will still mean around 1 million children in poverty in working families go without, and fundamentally undermine the goal of Universal Credit to make work pay.

We are calling on the government to continue their current policy of providing free school meals to all children on Universal Credit. This would help to ensure that almost all children in poverty receive at least one decent meal each day.

How many children in poverty will miss out in your area?

Use our map below to find out how many children in your area who are living in poverty will be left missing out on free school meals under the Government's proposals. If you would like to do more to help children you can become a campaign champion.

become a campaign champion



Further information is contained within the following short parliamentary briefing: Briefing on free school meals and universal credit

By Scott Compton

Read more

One million children in poverty are missing out on free school meals

Posted: 19 December 2017


Read more

Child poverty - children in larger families suffer most

Posted: 5 December 2017