One million children living in poverty ineligible for free school meals

Nicole Weinstein
Thursday, December 3, 2020

Over a million children in the UK who live below the poverty line are not eligible for free school meals, new analysis from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has found.

Prior to the pandemic, at least two in five school-age children - 1.3million -  did not qualify for free school meals because their parents were in low-paid work and the stringent eligibility criteria, the analysis found.

CPAG now estimates that another 100,000 UK school children in Year 3 and above that are not covered by universal infant free school meals, are in families with no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status. Many of these children will be living well below the poverty line, but are not usually eligible for means-tested free school meals. 

The charity says the findings show that the income thresholds for eligibility have fallen far too low and fail to support many families, in particular those living in in-work poverty. 

It is urging ministers to go beyond providing temporary food aid to low-income families in the holidays, and at a minimum, take up footballer Marcus Rashford’s call to extend eligibility for free school meals to all families on universal credit or equivalent benefits. Or, better still, make free school meals universal for all school-aged children in the UK, helping to remove stigma, support struggling families and ensure all children can benefit from the learning and health outcomes. 

CPAG also calls for the recent temporary extension of eligibility to families below the income threshold who have no recourse to public funds, to be made permanent.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of CPAG, said, ‘The evidence on the benefits of free school meals is really strong. Children’s school results improve when entitlement is expanded and the pressure on family budgets is eased  - so struggling parents are better placed to meet other essential living costs. Yet more than a million children in poverty are not getting a free school meal. That isn’t right – not in normal times, never mind in a pandemic when so many are seeing sudden drops in income.

‘Marcus Rashford is right to demand lasting solutions for children in poverty, including an extension of free school meals to all families on universal credit. 

The public support for him suggests that few would quibble over providing a £2.30-per-day meal for every child as a basic entitlement. Free school meals won’t end child poverty alone, but they will go a good way towards protecting children from hardship and helping struggling families to stay afloat. Now more than ever as we head towards a coronavirus recession, children need that daily layer of protection.’

In England 1.2m children below the poverty line are ineligible for free school meals. In Scotland the figure is 45,000, in Wales 70,000, and in Northern Ireland 20,000. 

Expanding eligibility for free school meals to include all UK families receiving universal credit, or equivalent benefits, would make 2.2 million children newly eligible at a cost of £900 million a year.

A permanent expansion of eligibility to families with no recourse to public funds would cost a maximum of £46 million per year but it is likely to be a lot less than this as not all 100,000 children will be below the income threshold.

CPAG welcomes the SNP’s recent pledge to provide universal free school lunches and breakfasts to all primary school pupils in Scotland if they are re-elected next year. Removing the means test from school meals greatly reduces the financial burden on many families. 

Universal infant free school meals are already available to all children in England and Scotland in the first three years of primary school. This policy ensures that infant children are provided with a balanced meal each day, helping to boost their learning, health and wellbeing, as well as supporting families with the cost of living.

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