UK Free School Meals Policy: Number of Children Eligible for Free School Meals Soars

UK Free School Meals Policy: Number of Children Eligible for Free School Meals Soars

Figures show an increase from 17.3% to nearly 21% in the last year. Meaning 1.74 million children are now eligible for free school dinners under the UK free school meals policy.

New government data shows that there has been an increase of 300,000 children entitled to free school meals in the past year. Now, more than one in five pupils in England are eligible – largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest figures published by the Department for Education (DfE) revealed that 20.8 per cent of pupils in England qualified for free school meals in January this year, compared to 17.3 in January 2020. A total of 1.74 million children in England are now eligible for support – when just last year it was only 1.44 million.

Who is eligible for free school meals?

According to Haringey London, children are entitled to receive free school meals under the UK free school meals policy if they or their parents or guardians receive any of the following:

  • Universal Credit, providing you have net earnings of less than £7,400 a year (£616.67 a month)
  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Guarantee Credit element of State Pension Credit
  • Support under Part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • Working Tax Credit run-on (paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
  • Child Tax Credit (providing you are not entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190 as assessed by HMRC)

The DfE noted that all regions in England saw a surge in eligibility this year, showing the pandemic’s effect on family household income. The highest rates were in the northeast, where 27.5 per cent of pupils were entitled to claim the meals, followed by 24.5 per cent in the West Midlands. Whereas, only 16 per cent of pupils in the southeast were eligible.

Discrete changes to UK free school meals policy

The new data was released after unions accused the government of making a “stealth cut” to pupil premium funding. The funding was used to support children from poorer families, and is partly calculated by the number of pupils who are entitled to free meals.

In previous years, schools in England reported the number of pupils eligible for the premium in January, but for the 2020-21 academic year, the DfE discreetly changed the date for this process to October. Now, schools will not receive any pupil premium funding for children who became eligible between October 2020 and January 2021 until next year.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Geoff Barton, slammed ministers for making this decision. 

He said, “The increase in free school meal eligibility over the course of the pandemic illustrates the financial impact on many families. Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus. The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the government.”

“These statistics show that the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by 100,000 in this period, which indicates a very large funding hole. Whatever the motivation for this change in the rules, the result is nothing short of shameful.”

Labour’s shadow minister for children, Tulip Siddiq, said, “The number of children on free school meals was rising even before the pandemic, as a decade of Conservative governments piled pressure on families’ budgets.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added, “Government can no longer ignore the concrete evidence of the rise in children eligible for free school meals, nor can they try to explain it away as a ‘technicality’. This is real money, affecting real children’s lives.

“They must come clean about how much they have saved with this change, and they must put that money back into school budgets immediately.”

The DfE insisted, when commenting about the issue when it arose in March, that using data from October allowed schools to “know their budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead”.

A spokesperson said, “We also recently announced £302m for a recovery premium, building on the pupil premium, which will be targeted towards the most deprived schools to support disadvantaged students’ attainment.”

This leaves disadvantaged children most affected as more and more families are falling into financial difficulty during the pandemic.

Wayne Norrie is CEO of Greenwood Academies Trust, a large family of schools in the East Midlands and East of England. Almost 50% of the children in the Academies Trust are eligible for free school meals. He says, “The children are getting poorer in front of our eyes”.

He adds that the pupil premium funding cuts will impact “the well-being of our children, the mental health of our children, and their stability,”.

All children deserve to have “their basic needs, that makes them happy, fed and warm.”

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