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1.7 million children on Universal Credit not entitled to free school meals

Rebecca Goodman
Written By:
Rebecca Goodman

Seven in 10 school children whose family receive benefits are not eligible for free school meals, analysis suggests.

This is despite families who receive Universal Credit (UC) most likely to be food insecure.

In England, 1.7 million pupils do not receive free school meals – worth around £460 per pupil per year – because they do not meet the current eligibility criteria.

This is because state school pupils whose families claim UC are only eligible for free school meals if their family’s post-tax earnings are less than £7,400 a year. This figure, set in 2018-2019 has been frozen in cash terms since then.

Meanwhile inflation has soared to double digits and food costs have spiralled.

For families who receive UC, food insecurity is either classed as low or very low for 30%, this is six times higher than those who do not claim the benefit, according to the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

More than half of families claiming the benefit and earning £200 a week or less before tax were food insecure, compared with a third of families earning between £200 and £400 a week.

Under the current system, parents also have a financial incentive not to earn over the income cap to avoid losing the access to free meals.

A single parent earning £7,399 with two school-age children would be better off financially unless they earned more than £9,400, the report claims. This is equivalent to some parents turning down an extra four hours of work a week at the National Living Wage rate.

Around 215,000 children are also missing out on free school meals due to the manual application process, councils have previously warned.

Free school meals for all children would cost £1bn a year

All children currently get free school meals for the first three years of primary school.

Expanding the current eligibility to all state school children in England, at primary and secondary school, to families who claim UC would cost around £1bn a year.

This is around the same cost of offering free school meals to all state primary school children, which is being piloted in London from September.

To offer free school meals to all children until they reach year 11 would cost around £2.5bn a year.

The amount of money for each meal is £2.41 yet if it had increased with inflation it would be £2.87. This means it has lost 16% of its real-terms value since 2014 and if the Government were to restore the rate to the amount it was in 2014, this would add an extra £250m a year.

There are also costs of extra school kitchens and dining areas to be considered.

Making the system more generous would directly benefit the very poorest

Christine Farquharson, senior research economist at IFS, said “The current system of means-tested free school meals is tightly targeted at the most disadvantaged families – so making existing provision more generous by, for example, reversing the real-terms cuts to the funding rate would directly benefit the very poorest.”

Andrew McKendrick, research economist at IFS, said: “Universalising free school meals would affect children across the income distribution and might have wider benefits for health and educational outcomes, but it would also significantly increase existing spending.

“Expanding eligibility – for example, to include more families on Universal Credit – would focus more of the additional spending on low-income families, but still would not directly benefit the very poorest children, who are already entitled to free lunches.”