Free school meals: One million more school children could be fed if the sign-up process eased, councils urge

More than a million additional school children could receive free school meals and be entitled to extra support funding if the sign-up process for the scheme was simplified and extended to more families.

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More than a million additional school children could receive free school meals and be entitled to extra support funding if the sign-up process for the scheme was simplified and extended to more families, councils say today.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said automatic enrolment for free school meals should be introduced and eligibility expanded to include all children who meet the income criteria, regardless of their parents’ circumstances.

It comes as the Government is expected to publish its food strategy white paper imminently, which will contain a range of new proposals on tackling inequalities in access to healthy food and improving the environmental and public health impact of our national food supply.

Automatic enrolling of school children who are eligible for free school meals and expanding its criteria were among the recommendations in the National Food Strategy, written by businessman and campaigner Henry Dimbleby, which the LGA is calling on the government to include in the upcoming white paper.

The LGA is also urging the Government to review the current £7,400 income threshold for free school meals, which has remained unchanged since its introduction in 2018, in order to reach more children who are on the cusp of experiencing food poverty as household budgets are squeezed by rising prices and inflation.

Data, on which school children are eligible, is already held at the government level, but the current process means parents have to formally apply to their local authority, or via their child’s academy school, to claim for free school meals. 

Government estimates on claim rates indicate that automatic enrolment could capture the 11 per cent of eligible school children who have not yet taken up the offer. Analysis of these figures by the LGA and the Child Poverty Action Group show this equates to 215,000 school children in England, under the current eligibility criteria.

This in turn would generate tens of millions of pounds in valued extra pupil premium funding for schools, which is allocated based on the number of free school meals claims per school, to help them narrow the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.

A further 1.1 million children could benefit from free school meals if the income threshold is changed and immigration limitations on who is eligible are lifted on a permanent basis, for example, if the threshold was raised to £20,000 and extended to include those families who are undocumented or with no recourse to public funds, as recommended in the strategy.

Cllr Shaun Davies, Chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Rising food, fuel and other costs affect everybody, but particularly low-income households with children who rely on extra support to make ends meet.

Given these pressures, it is absolutely essential that all those who are eligible can get the help they need, including access to free school meals, at a time when we know the price of food and the general cost of living are spiralling.

“Streamlining and removing the red tape in the applications process, so that councils get given the information they need, is vital if we are to ensure no child misses out on a healthy meal. The Government should also urgently look to raise the earnings threshold and permanently extend the criteria to those who are currently not eligible due to immigration status, including undocumented parents and those who are not able to access public funds, so that no child goes hungry.”

Notes to editors

  • Parliamentary question on free school meals: 89 per cent take-up among those who are entitled (13 October 2020)
  • The 215,000 pupils figure has been taken from CPAG/LGA research and analysis of government figures
  • Children with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) are currently entitled to free school meals under a temporary Covid extension, but this is due to end. 
  • Section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 states that a person will have ‘no recourse to public funds’ if they are ‘subject to immigration control’. This means they have no entitlement to the majority of welfare benefits, including income support, housing benefits and a range of allowances and tax credits.
  • The National Food Strategy, written by businessman and campaigner Henry Dimbleby, is an independent report published in July 2021 looking at the entire food chain from field to fork, which makes recommendations for government to respond to in an upcoming white paper.
  • The food strategy recommends the earnings threshold for free school meals (FSMs) eligibility to be increased from £7,500 to £20,000 per year; and for all 16 to 18-year-olds plus children whose parents have no recourse to public funds or are undocumented, be eligible for FSMs (subject to the same earnings threshold). If implemented in full, these two policies would entitle approximately 1.1 million more children to FSMs in England and would cost £544 million per year for three years.
  • The food strategy also recommends all pupils entitled to FSM be automatically enrolled to receive the benefit.