Free school meals UK: call for universal provision as 500,000 kids miss out - how to check if you’re eligible
Hundreds of thousands of eligible children in England, Wales and Scotland were not receiving the free lunch they were entitled to last year.
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Free school meals should be expanded to cover all children to combat stigma, campaigners say, as we reveal hundreds of thousands of eligible children missed out on free lunches across Britain last year.
Almost a quarter (24.5%) of the 1.9 million children in Year 3 and above in England known to be eligible for free school meals did not receive them according to Department for Education data collected during a school census day for 2021/22. That would mean 465,000 were missing out - although the department’s data does not account for eligible children who were absent from school and not needing a meal on census day.
There were also tens of thousands of eligible children not getting the free meals they are entitled to across Scotland and Wales.
Free school meals are generally limited to families receiving benefits, and infant school children. But the Child Poverty Action Group says the current system can leave families feeling stigmatised, and reluctant to claim the help they are entitled to – even if they are struggling.
Last week (27 September) at its annual party conference Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson committed to providing free breakfast clubs at every primary school in England under a Labour government. It stopped short of committing to universal free school meals
The Scottish Government expanded its free lunch scheme earlier this year to cover all children in Primary 1 to 5 (equivalent to reception to Year 5 in England). But more than a third (38.2%) of pupils eligible for means-tested free lunches did not take theirs last year, according to the latest government data.
More than 62,000 Scottish children were registered as being entitled to free school meals and in school on census day, but almost 24,000 were recorded as not taking them. The analysis excludes Primary1 to 5 and children in special schools who have universal free meals.
Almost 12,000 eligible children also missed out on a free school meal in Wales, according to the latest 2021/22 figures from the Welsh Government. This represents 14.1% of all eligible children. Data collection for Northern Ireland for the 2021/22 period was suspended so has not been included.
The figures show wide geographical differences in the proportion of eligible children claiming free school lunches across Britain, with Scottish councils among those with the lowest uptake. In Midlothian more than half (58.5%) of eligible pupils were not recorded as having taken a free lunch, greater than any other council in Britain. This was followed closely by Fife with 49.2% and Stirling with 47.7%.
In England Bracknell Forest had the greatest proportion of eligible children not taking a free lunch with 34.5%, followed by Reading with 34.3% and St Helen’s with 33.7%.
Why are so many children missing out on free school meals?
Sara Ogilvie, policy director at the Child Poverty Action Group, called on the Government to introduce universal free school meals.
“While it’s difficult to be precise about how many eligible children are not taking their free school meals, we do know that families and children still feel stigmatised – which is another reason to move towards free meals for all school kids,” she said.
“Around 800,000 children below the poverty line are not even eligible because the criteria is so restrictive and with so many families unable to pay bills right now, it’s clear that eligibility must be expanded so that every child can get a free, nutritious meal in school. No child should be going hungry in school because there isn’t much money at home.”
What are governments doing to help?
The UK Government said the figures for England do not take into account children who were eligible for free school meals but off from school.
A spokesperson said: “We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, which currently reaches 1.9 million children. We are also investing millions in the National School Breakfast Programme
“The Chancellor has unveiled a new growth plan, taking decisive action to get households and businesses through this winter and the next, by growing the economy to raise living standards for everyone.”
In response to Labour’s plan to create free breakfast clubs across England, the Scottish Government said it was currently evaluating the existing breakfast offer, which benefits children in certain parts of the country. It has also committed to the rollout of free school lunches to all children in primary school during the course of this parliamentary term.
A spokesperson said: “The total number of free school meals taken was at a record level of 215,053 in 2022, the highest since statistics began in 2006.All local authorities have a statutory duty to promote school meals and to take all reasonable steps to ensure that children and young people entitled to free school meals are supported to access them.
“All pupils in Primary 1 to 5, state special schools, and eligible pupils from Primary 6 to Secondary 6, are currently entitled to free school meals. This saves parents £400 per year per child, and is the most generous free school meal entitlement of anywhere in the UK.”
The Welsh Government added: “We’re committed to ensuring no child goes hungry at school. A universal free breakfast scheme for primary schools has operated in Wales since 2013. Roll out of free school meals in primary schools has also begun, as part of our Co-operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru. This universal offer will help remove stigma and ensure every child receives a meal.”
How to apply for free school meals for your child ?
Children in state reception and Years 1 and 2 are entitled to free school meals regardless of household income. Parents or carers who receive benefits, such as Universal Credit, and have a household income under £7,400 a year can also claim free school meals for older children. You can find out if you are eligible to put in a claim by visiting the UK Government website here. You will then have to contact your local council to find out how to apply.
Parents or carers who receive benefits, such as Universal Credit, and meet the earnings criteria can claim free school meals. You can find out if you are eligible to put in a claim by visiting the Northern Ireland Education Authority website here. You will then have to contact your local council to find out how to apply.
Children in state Primary 1 to 5 are entitled to free school meals regardless of household income. Parents or carers who receive benefits, such as Universal Credit, and earn under a set amount can also claim free school meals. You can find out if you are eligible to put in a claim by visiting the Scottish Government website here. You will then have to contact your local council to find out how to apply.
Children in reception class are entitled to free school meals from September 2022 – part of a Welsh Government plan to roll out free school meals to all primary school children by 2024. Parents or carers who receive benefits, such as Universal Credit, and meet the earnings criteria can also claim free school meals. You can find out if you are eligible to put in a claim by visiting the Welsh Government website here. You will then have to contact your local council to find out how to apply.