According to Child Poverty Action Group, an alarming number of children in poverty still don’t qualify for free school meals (FSMs), despite a rise in the number eligible during the pandemic and out of the four nations, Wales has highest proportion of children missing out.
The action group says that the proportion of children in poverty not getting free school meals varies a lot across the 4 nations, and is highest in Wales and England (where 42% and 37% of children in poverty miss out on free meals respectively). Rates are much lower in Scotland (17%) and Northern Ireland (22%).
The group also says that restrictive eligibility criteria and low provision of universal free school meals cause more children in poverty to miss out.
Child Poverty Action Group and low-income parents participating in the Covid Realities project are calling for urgent action to extend free school meals to all households on universal credit or equivalent benefits.
The report authors also call for the extension of FSM to families with no recourse to public funds, better support for family finances year-round through the social security system, and for progress towards universal provision of FSM for all children in the UK.
A new report from Child Poverty Action Group and Covid Realities shows that 36% (about 1 million) of all school-aged children in poverty in the UK are not entitled to a free meal at school. The analysis shows that despite a rise in the number of children claiming FSMs between March 2020 and March 2021, restrictive eligibility criteria still prevent many in poverty from accessing any form of free school meal provision.
Households on universal credit in England and Wales must earn less than £7,400 a year to be eligible for free school meals, regardless of the number of children in the family. In Scotland, they must earn less than £7,320, while in Northern Ireland, the threshold is higher at £14,000. These low limits on income mean that many children from working families are in poverty but unable to access free school meals.
While the majority of children in poverty who don’t qualify for free school meals are in England (due to its much larger population), all four nations have a concerning proportion of children in poverty missing out. In Wales, 42% (55,000) of children in poverty miss out; in England, 37% (900,000); in Scotland, 17% (25,000); and in Northern Ireland, 22% (20,000).
The report identifies three factors that affect the number of children in poverty in each nation who are ineligible for free school meals:
The eligibility criteria for means-tested FSMs
The provision of universal FSMs (e.g. for infants in England)
The underlying child poverty rate in that nation
Low-income parents participating in the Covid Realities research project shared their experience of free school meals to inform the report, and helped to develop recommendations. All parents whose children receive FSMs said they value that provision highly, and said it made a “huge difference” to family life. Those whose children did not receive free school meals highlighted barriers to eligibility including being in receipt of working tax credit.