While universal credit has been rolling out, all families receiving it have been entitled to free school meals, but this will change if the Government plans to bring in means-testing for free school meals under universal credit go ahead.
Under the proposals, new eligibility criteria based on net earnings will be used instead of the current system, which takes the number of hours parents worked as an eligibility measure. Up to £7,400 will be allowed per household before benefits are taken into account, (typically equivalent to between £18,000 to £24,000 household income per year).
The Government says that around 90 per cent of pupils currently eligible for free school meals will continue to be eligible. Households working relatively fewer hours but with higher incomes above the new threshold will stand to lose eligibility.
The Children’s Society claims that just 700,000 of the 1,700,000 school children in poverty will receive free school meals.
Figures from the children’s charity show that once a family with one child passes the £7,400 earnings threshold, they would need to earn £1,124 a year more, the equivalent of working 2.4 hours more each week at national living wage, to make up for the loss in free school meals.
However, the Children’s Society says that if the Government continued to offer free school meals to all children whose families will be eligible for universal credit around two million children from poor and low-income families would benefit once the rollout was complete.
The analysis shows that regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria.
In London where 37 per cent of children are in poverty, 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals; in the West Midlands 128,900 children will miss out (33 per cent of children are living in poverty), and in the North West 132,400 children will lose out (30 per cent are in poverty).
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said, 'The Government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school. There are significant, proven benefits for children’s health, education and their futures in making sure they have a healthy lunch every day, but at least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced.
‘Continuing to provide free school meals for all children on universal credit would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise. Universal credit was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.
‘If the Government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering free school meals for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.’
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, ‘Teachers are very aware of the impact of poverty on the children they teach. If children are coming to school hungry it will clearly impact negatively on their physical and mental wellbeing as well as affecting learning through an inability to concentrate. Taking away free school meals for families on universal credit is an unnecessary and damaging move that will cause huge distress and problems for many families. It is extraordinary that a Government that says it is committed to addressing inequality in education cannot grasp this fact.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'The fact is over 50,000 more children will be entitled to Free School Meals through our eligibility proposals following the rollout of Universal Credit. It’s right that we make sure this support reaches children from the most disadvantaged families and we’re consulting on this issue to make sure that’s the case.'