Nick 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.