This year’s count found 22.5% of children eligible for free school meals (FSM), compared to 20.8% in 2021 and 17.3% in 2020. However, one number has not changed. Since 2018, the eligibility threshold for benefits-related FSM has remained at a household income of just £7,400 before benefits. Therefore, an increase in the number of children being eligible for FSM means an increase in the number of children with household incomes below £7,400 per year, before benefits.
Despite nearly two million children being recorded as eligible for FSM, our friends at Child Poverty Action Group estimate one third of children in England living in poverty still miss out.
The 1.9m children eligible are from families who have managed to register themselves as the government has no mechanism to auto-enrol those eligible to the scheme. As a result, many families face administrative, stigmatic, technological and language barriers to accessing free school meals. As the National Food Strategy said, ‘it cannot be right to let paperwork stand between a child and a hot meal.’ An auto-enrolment system for free school meals would remove these barriers and, in turn, generate income for the school through pupil premium.
Perhaps even more concerning is what may happen next year. In 2018, the government introduced the £7,400 threshold. With this, and in response to the welfare system changing over to universal credit, the government introduced protections to prevent children from losing out on FSM during the transition. The government estimated these protections would see ‘hundreds of thousands’ of children being eligible for FSM. These protections are expected to end in 2023, meaning many more children could end up missing out.
If the government is sincere in its ambitions to ‘level up’ the country, surely providing the nutritional safety net afforded by free school meals is a good place to start? Indeed, these data show there is a job to be done across the country. In the North East, 29.1% of children are eligible, while in the South East that is 17.6%. Shouldn’t all children have access to the nutrition they need to thrive no matter where they live?
The registration process for free school meals is just one part of an unwieldy bureaucracy that is used to divide children by their families’ circumstances. This is the only part of the school day for which children are means-tested and is leading to some families being driven into dinner money debt.
The stringent eligibility thresholds are resulting in millions of children missing out on a hot school meal. The government urgently needs to extend free school meals to more children, and aim for universal provision, so that all children can reap the benefits of enjoying a hot, tasty meal together.
The new data can be found here.