Before the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), the receipt of certain passported benefits determined a child’s entitlement to free school meals (FSM). UC replaces six existing benefits with a monthly payment that gradually reduces as earnings increase, to ensure people are better off in work. It is targeted at people who are looking for work or who are on a low income and it aims to create a greater fairness in the welfare system.
When UC was introduced in 2013, a temporary measure was put in place that gave FSM entitlement to all children in households in receipt of UC. This was because the UC pathfinders were receiving out of work benefits, and so their children would have been eligible for FSM under the legacy system.
Last year, around 1.1 million of the most disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal, which corresponds to approximately 14% of children in state-funded schools. If this temporary measure were to continue for the full rollout of Universal Credit, around half of all children would become eligible for FSM so that meals would no longer be targeted at those who need them the most. For this reason, the government explored replacing this temporary measure with a net earned income threshold to determine eligibility. This approach is consistent with how other government departments and devolved administrations have approached amending criteria for passported benefits under Universal Credit, for example the Help with Healthcare costs scheme (covering prescription charges) administered by the Department of Health and Social Care; and free school meals in Scotland.
In collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department for Education (DfE) undertook analysis to determine the impact of different income thresholds on the number of children in receipt of FSM. Additionally, we considered operational feasibility, legal frameworks and technological capabilities. We decided to consult on implementing a net earned income threshold of £7,400.
The analysis undertaken by DfE uses outputs from two DWP models:
Whilst these modelling outputs have their limitations, they are considered the best available sources for modelling benefit entitlement and the flows between different benefits.
The outputs of these models are used by DfE in the following ways:
By combining this information, we are able to estimate:
Using this, we can estimate the difference in size between two groups of children who are in UC households in January 2022:
The government is introducing transitional protections to ensure that existing recipients of free school meals will not lose their entitlement following the introduction of new eligibility criteria. When calculating the effect of the threshold, we decided it was important not to account for protections in order to better understand how the number of children who meet the eligibility criteria change. These protected children are therefore not included in this analysis of the additional pupils eligible for FSM.
We take into account the fact that not every entitled household will claim for FSM. We do this by applying a “claiming rate” to the numbers described above. Our basis for this assumption comes from a DfE report into the proportion of pupils not claiming FSM. This report found that there is an under registration rate of around 11%, suggesting a claiming rate in the region of 89%.
Our modelling does not attempt to anticipate behavioural responses that may result due to policy changes.
We estimate that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal compared to the previous benefits system.
This figure represents the difference between those that gain eligibility under UC to those that would have been eligible under the old system but will not now be eligible under UC. It also takes account of the fact that not everybody claims their meal.
This figure does not include children that retain free school meals as a result of the transitional protections we are introducing during the rollout of Universal Credit. Under our proposals, no child in England should lose their free school meal during the transition to Universal Credit. In addition, any protected pupils who still receive free school meals once the transition is complete should continue to receive protection until the end of their current phase of education (e.g. primary, secondary school).
It is important to note that this number looks only at the net change in cohort size due to the eligibility criteria. The transitional protections (as outlined in the consultation response) mean that no child will actually lose their free school meals during the rollout of UC.
As new economic forecasts are released and underlying data (such as the FRS) are refreshed, the outputs from both the PSM and the INFORM will change. In turn, the output of the analysis outlined in this document will change.
DfE will continue to publish statistics on free school meals as part of its annual publication ‘Schools, pupils and their characteristics’.
14 Details of the rollout schedule can be found here: