The future of entitlement to Free School Meals
Free school meals are a crucial form of financial support for many low income families with around a million children receiving them. They also promote healthy eating by providing a nutritious lunch for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The benefits of having had a healthy, hot meal at lunchtime on children’s behaviour and educational attainment cannot be denied. For some children this is the only good meal they will have in the day.
However, there are several issues with both the current eligibility criteria and delivery of Free School Meals. There has long been a stigma attached to Free School Meals with some children being singled out and bullied for receiving them. Moreover, current eligibility criteria means that parents who work more than 16 hours per week lose eligibility for Free School Meals for their children.
This causes two problems. Firstly, parents may be discouraged from entering employment or taking on more hours at work because of the additional costs of having to pay for Free School Meals. Secondly, some parent’s work over 16 hours a week but are still on a very low income, often below the poverty line, and their children do not qualify for free school lunches.
The government is planning a fundamental overhaul of the benefit system with the introduction of the Universal Credit system. This presents an opportunity to improve the eligibility criteria for free school meals as the current criteria will have to be changed substantially under the new system. It could result in more children benefiting from a free, healthy lunch at school. However, badly constructed eligibility criteria could further undermine incentives to work and result in fewer children being entitled to this important support.
One of the government’s proposals for the new system is to take away Free School Meal entitlement when a family starts earning above a certain threshold. This is concerning as it would ensure that some families would will lose their entitlement if a parent increases their working hours or gets even a small pay rise. As the entitlement to free school meals is worth around £370 per child per year, families in this situation could be significantly worse off under Universal Credit especially if they have a number of children. It cannot be acceptable that families should be financially penalised for working harder.
The Children’s Society is feeding into the Government developments to ensure the new system of free school meal entitlement works for families. In order to do this we want to hear from parents in households who are entitled to Free School Meals or have been in the past. If you are a parent who fits this profile please complete our online survey to tell us what you think.