Free School Meals for All

| posted in: Passported Benefits, Universal Credit | 6 Comments

Free school mealsNick Clegg announced at the Lib Dem conference that free school meals (FSM) will be extended to all children aged 5-7 in state schools in England, effective September 2014. On average, the policy will save families £437 a year per child and is estimated to cost £600m. Funds will be provided for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to implement similar schemes.

Policy in Practice has advocated for the eligibility of FSM to be extended to all Universal Credit claimants, so we are pleased to hear the Government’s plan. Giving free school meals to all children, not just those on low incomes or benefits, will have a positive impact on attainment, take up, and will reach more children in poverty. However, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how FSM will be treated for older children under Universal Credit.

Universal Free School Meals could raise attainment levels

In a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, National Centre for Social Research, and Bryson Purdon Social Research, free school meals were offered to all primary school children in Newham and Durham. They saw children’s attainment levels rise, making 4-8 weeks more progress over a two year period than similar children in other areas.

On the other hand, in Wolverhampton entitlement to free school meals was extended to all primary and secondary students whose parents were in receipt of Working Tax Credits and below a certain income threshold. In this case, there was no significant improvement in educational attainment compared to similar children in other areas.

This study suggests that making free school meals universal, rather than targeted, would have a more positive impact on educational attainment.

Take-up and stigma

The lack of outcomes in Wolverhampton could be due to low take-up of the scheme. There was no significant impact on take-up either for children entitled to and registered for FSM, or for those who were newly entitled to FSM. In contrast, 90% of children in Newham and Durham took up their FSM at least once a week, a 30 percentage point increase.

It is likely that take-up is impacted by the stigma associated with free school meals. A study last year found that 300,000 children entitled to free school meals (around 27%) did not take them up, partly attributed to stigma.

This also suggests that universalism rather than means-testing will be more effective in getting school meals to those who need it. In Newham and Durham, there was a significant increase in take-up by those who were already entitled to and registered for free school meals, most likely because the stigma of FSM had been removed.

Reaching children in ‘hidden poverty’

Stigma is not the only reason that children from low-income households are not getting a free school meal – some of them are not entitled to one. Research from the Children’s Society estimated that over half of children living in poverty – 700,000 – were not eligible for free school meals.

Extending free school meals to all children will mean that all children in poverty will have access to this vital support.

Free School Meals and Universal Credit

There has been concern about how free school meals (and other passported benefits) would be treated under Universal Credit. While Clegg’s announcement is welcome news for all families with children in the first three years of primary school, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how FSM will be treated for older children under Universal Credit.

Policy in Practice found that due to tax and UC taper, families would have to earn four times the cost of the meal to make up for the loss. To make sure that work pays, Policy in Practice has argued that eligibility for free school meals should be extended to all families receiving Universal Credit.

6 Responses

  1. And the children 3-5 and 7+ are they to sit and starve or at some point do they magically become able to live off fresh air at these ages? Or perhaps the cost of school meals becomes more manageable at those ages…… I know it doesn’t. It’s just another poorly thought out attempt at policy.
    More children than ever (in modern era) are living in poverty thanks to these multiple sham attempts at policy that only make the poor worse off and the rich richer and making kids suffer for it all. But let’s not worry too much they’ll have a minor reprieve between the ages of 5 & 7 so that’s apparently ok.

    • lisa.stidle

      Dear NEmum,

      I agree that younger and older children should also be entitled to free school meals, but I think that offering them to primary school children is a step in the right direction.

      Policy in Practice has campaigned for all children on Universal Credit to receive free school meals.

  2. Good free school meals for all. I earn too much to qualify so pay out for them but it would help me financially greatly. It’s great it’s there to hell people worse off but sometimes you do feel you’re working your butt off and getting penalised for it. School can be very expensive, I can’t send my 2 year old to pre-school as I “earn too much” to qualify for funding but then my child loses out whereas if I earnt less and didn’t go to work as much which I’d love she could. You do feel a bit penalised for working a lot. I work 57.5 hours a week, nights and weekends as my hubby can’t due to ME (but can’t get disability benefit) for the extra money, with little help from kids bio parents (apart from step sons bio dad) and it feels like there’s easier ways some times :(

    • lisa.stidle

      Dear Michelle,

      I am glad to hear that introducing universal free school meals will help you and your family.

      I am sorry to hear about your frustration with the benefit system. Your comments echo those we have heard from others, that you do not feel the system always rewards those who work hard. We hope that Universal Credit will help to address this issue.

  3. why waste money on families who are quite wealthy enough to pay for their child’s dinner? Crazy

    • lisa.stidle

      Dear Bob,

      Thanks for your comment.

      As I wrote in my post, when free school meals are means-tested, stigma and strict eligibility requirements may mean that children in poverty are not getting them. There is a case that universalism will mean less stigma and better access to families who need them.

      Do you think all benefits should be means-tested? Do you agree with the introduction of means-tested Child Benefit?

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