Eligibility for Free School Meals

Parents in England do not have to pay for school lunches if they receive any of the following:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided they are not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after a person stops qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

Children who get any of the above benefits in their own right (i.e. they get benefits payments directly, instead of through a parent or guardian) can also get free school meals.  Children under the compulsory school age who are in full-time education may also be able to get free school meals.

Free school meals are available to pupils who attend sixth forms attached to a maintained school, as long as the course of study began before the pupil reached age 18. Pupils who study in sixth form colleges, Further Education colleges or other providers are not entitled to free school meals, although individual colleges may provide them.

Local authorities are responsible for providing free school lunches and applications must be made through the relevant local body.

Universal Infant Free School Meals

Since September 2014, free school meals have been provided for all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in maintained schools, academies and free schools.  Departmental advice is available for schools on fulfilling the duty, including funding information, most recently revised in July 2015.

Consultation: Free School Meal eligibility under Universal Credit

Universal Credit is a new benefit which is replacing means-tested social security benefits and tax credits for people of working age. Universal Credit will replace:

  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Housing Benefit

Universal Credit will impact on free school meal eligibility as it abolishes several of the qualifying benefits.  This has broader significance as free school meal eligibility is used as a measure of disadvantage in other school funding, such as the Pupil Premium. 

Currently, while Universal Credit is rolled out, all recipients qualify for free school meals. 

In November 2017, the Department for Education published a consultation on eligibility for free school meals, as well as eligibility for the early years’ pupil premium, under Universal Credit.

The consultation document set out the following proposed threshold for a net earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum.  The Department estimated that around 50,000 more pupils than is currently the case would become eligible under this system:

  • To enable a greater number of children to benefit from free school meals, we are proposing a net earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum for a household’s eligibility for free school meals. We estimate that, under this threshold, an extra 50,000 children would become eligible for free school meals, compared to today’s number of claimants. It is important to note that the net earnings threshold does not represent a household’s total income, as it does not include their income from benefits, which significantly increase a household’s overall income. A typical family earning around £7,400 per annum would, depending on their exact circumstances, have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account. (p9)

The consultation proposed to introduce this net earnings threshold in April 2018, and for the threshold to remain constant until the end of the Universal Credit rollout period.

The consultation also set out the Government’s plans that:

  • Existing recipients of free school meals would not lose their entitlement following the introduction of new eligibility criteria. This protection would cover claimants on Universal Credit, including those who earn above the earnings threshold. It would also cover free school meals claimants on legacy benefits, including those who switch to Universal Credit during the rollout.
  • Every pupil who is eligible for free school meals at the point at which the criteria are changed (or any new claimants under the threshold who gain free school meals during the rollout of Universal Credit) should be protected against losing their meals whilst Universal Credit is fully rolled out nationally, even if their eligibility changes.
  • In addition, any protected pupils who are still receiving free school meals once the transition is complete would continue to receive protection until the end of their current phase of education (e.g. primary, secondary).

The protection for existing claimants reflected that the changes would otherwise mean that some currently entitled households would lose out:

  • Under our proposed threshold, a number of low-income households who are not currently entitled to free school meals will become newly entitled, and the vast majority (around 90%) of pupils currently eligible for free school meals will continue to be eligible. However, although we are increasing the number of eligible children, some households (particularly those working fewer hours but with higher incomes) will have earnings above the new threshold, and would therefore stand to lose eligibility. (p11)

The consultation closed on 11 January 2018. The Government has not yet responded.


  • In January 2017 there were 1.13 million pupils in state schools who were known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals. This was 14.0% of all pupils in these schools. Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2017
  • In 2017-18 1.89 million pupils in England were known to have been eligible for free school meals at some point in the previous six years and hence attracted funding for their schools through the Deprivation Pupil Premium. Pupil premium: allocations and conditions of grant 2017 to 2018
  • The Government’s consultation on changing eligibility criteria for free school meals estimated that the changes would mean around 10% of pupils currently receiving free meals would no longer be eligible. However, under the proposed protection arrangements, they would however to receive free meals during the Universal Credit rollout period.
  • The Government estimates that changes in eligibility criteria would mean more pupils becoming eligible than losing their entitlement to free meals; a net increase of around 50,000. Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit


A BBC News article discussing the consultation raised concerns about a potential ‘cliff-edge’ aspect to the proposals if they are rolled out as planned:

  • If a household is earning just under £7,400 and has the chance to earn slightly more money, it may have an incentive to turn it down.
  • Free school meals are worth £2.30 per child per day, which over a 38-week school year comes out at £437 per child, so even for a household with a single eligible child, taking on an extra hour of work per week at £7.50 an hour would mean a loss of income. [BBC News, Universal credit: Free school meals proposal keeps cliff edge, 17 November 2017]

Some other bodies have argued that the Government should continue to make FSM available to all children from families in receipt of any Universal Credit.  The Children’s Society, for example, has made this argument:

  • 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.
  • The regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria. In London 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals, in the West Midlands with 130,000 children and the North West 130,000 children.
  • If the government continued to offer free school meals to all children whose families claim universal credit, around two million children from poor and low-income families in England would benefit once roll out is completed. Under the benefits system that universal credit is replacing, only families where parents are working too few hours to claim working tax credits are entitled to free school meals. The government proposals will mean that just 700,000 of the 1,700,000 school children in poverty who could be helped, will receive free school meals. (source: Children’s Society, press release, 19 December 2017)

The Resolution Foundation considered the FSM eligibility issue in a blog post published on 11 January 2018:

  • So far all families [on Universal Credit] are entitled – because very few working families with children are in the system. Rather than massively expand or severely curtail Free School Meals the government proposes a compromise. It will broadly maintain the status quo with an earnings threshold similar to the tax credit cut off point. But doing so creates an effective £11 a week loss of income when crossing the threshold, and it takes £30 of earnings to claw it back given the UC taper. In reality relatively few will find themselves faced with this cliff-edge. However, a core tenet of UC – that it will always pay to work more – has been sacrificed.

Pupil Premium

Introduced in 2011 by the Coalition Government, the Pupil Premium is additional funding provided to publicly-funded schools in England schools with the aim of raising the attainment of disadvantaged children. In 2017-18, £2.4 billion of Pupil Premium funding was allocated in respect of around 2 million pupils, with the following pupils attracting funding:

  • Children registered as eligible for free school meals (FSMs) at any point since May 2011 (referred to as Ever 6 FSM). £1,320 was allocated for each such pupil in reception to year 6; £935 was allocated for each such pupil in years 7 to 11.
  • £1,900 for each child looked after by a local authority, or who left the care of a local authority in England or Wales because of adoption, a special guardianship order, or a child arrangements order (sometimes referred to as Pupil Premium Plus).

The £2.4 billion also includes a Service Premium of £300, which is paid in respect of pupils who have had a parent in the regular armed forces at any point since January 2012 (referred to as Ever 6 service children), or who are in receipt of a pension under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme or the War Pensions Scheme after their parent died while serving the armed forces.

Concerns: school funding implications

Concerns were raised following the introduction of UIFSM about potential implications of the introduction of universal free school meals for infant children on school funding. 

Schools receive Pupil Premium funding for children who qualify for free school meals, and were concerned about missing out on this funding if parents did not register for meals that their children now received as a matter of course.  See for instance:

In October 2015, the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee stated in a report on Funding for Disadvantaged Pupils that problems around the identification of disadvantaged pupils could become more acute with the introduction of Universal Credit:

  • Universal Credit, which will see five benefits combined into one, means the end of the current basis for determining free school meals and therefore Pupil Premium eligibility. The Department does not yet know how it will identify disadvantaged pupils following Universal Credit’s introduction, and there is relatively little time to find an answer. There has also been substantial variation in the level of under-claiming between local authorities. In 2013, in some areas more than 30% of eligible pupils did not take up their free school meals entitlement compared to 0% in other areas. The Department told us that it wanted to target local authorities where under-claiming was high, so that schools do not miss out on funding because parents fail to claim. (para 5)

In January 2018, the Education Policy Institute published an Evaluation of Universal Infant Free School Meals.

The EPI report published a variety of findings on policy implementation and outcomes, as well as cost issues.  The EPI found a rapid increase of take-up of free school meals, and parental satisfaction as well as financial benefits for families.  The EPI however found significant costs for schools, and potential future concerns about the levels of funding provided. 

The report found the following relating to Pupil Premium funding:

  • The policy has also affected Pupil Premium funding for infants, which may affect the same children in later years. (31% of school leaders surveyed reported that take-up of FSM for pupil premium purposes had decreased, 15% reported that it had increased and 38% reported that it had stayed the same due to UIFSM).

The report recommended that:

  • The Department for Education should monitor the implications for funding and school accountability, and consider ways to make it easier for parents to be registered for the Pupil Premium under Universal Credit.

 Related information

Further measures to help families during the transition to Universal Credit were announced in the Autumn Budget; see-

The letter also gives information on changes to the UC Full Service roll-out schedule announced alongside the £1.5 billion package.  The latest schedule for the roll-out of the Full Service to the remaining parts of Great Britain can be found in Transition Rollout Schedule – November 2017 to December 2018 on GOV.UK (updated 5 December 2017).

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