This release presents data on free school meals (FSM) as collected in the Autumn school census. The number of pupils eligible for free school meals on census day (1 October 2020) and the number of pupils who have become eligible since 23 March 2020, that is since the first COVID-19 lockdown was announced, are presented.
Data on free school meal eligibility is collected in the Autumn school census but not routinely published. As the most recent official statistics correspond to January 2020 and are prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are publishing this data to present a more timely view of free school meals in schools in England.
This publication aims to fill the gap between annual publications and provide a more timely picture of how the numbers of pupils eligible for FSM has changed.
Headline facts and figures - 2020/21
19.7% of pupils were eligible for free school meals at October 2020. This is an increase from 17.3% in January 2020.
This amounts to 1.63 million children, an increase from 1.44million in January 2020.
Of those 1.63 million, 302,400 have become eligible for free school meals since the first national COVID-19 lockdown was announced. Over the same period in 2019, prior to the pandemic, 208,500 children became eligible for free school meals.
Download all data available in this release as a compressed ZIP file
Free school meal eligibility
In England in 2020, children in state-funded schools were entitled to receive free school meals if a parent or carer were in receipt of any of the following benefits:
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 were not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and had an annual gross income of no more than £16,190, as assessed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)
Working Tax Credit run-on - paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
Universal Credit - if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits)
Children in nursery schools are eligible if they meet the criteria and attend for full days. Pupils are still eligible for free school meals in school in sixth form, but not sixth form college or further education.
If a child is eligible for free school meals, they’ll remain eligible until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) they’re in on 31 March 2022.
Since 1 April 2018, transitional protections have been in place which will continue to be in place during the roll out of Universal Credit. This has meant that pupils eligible for free school meals on or after 1 April 2018 retain their free school meals eligibility even if their circumstances change. Prior to the pandemic, this had been the main driver in the increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals as pupils continue to become eligible but fewer pupils stop being eligible.
The number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased during 2020
In October 2020, 1.63 million pupils were eligible for free school meals, 19.7% of all pupils. This is an increase of nearly 200,000 pupils since January 2020, when 1.44 million (17.3%) pupils were eligible for free school meals.
The number of pupils eligible for FSM was already increasing prior to the pandemic
The percentage of pupils with free school meals had been increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with increases from 13.6% in January 2018, to 15.4% in January 2019, and to 17.3% in January 2020. The increase from January 2020 to October 2020 is higher than each of these previous year on year increases.
Due to the transitional protections described above, an increase would typically be expected as pupils flow on to free school meals when becoming eligible, but protections mean pupils do not flow off in a similar way.
Over 300,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first national lockdown began, an increase of almost 94,000 on the same period in 2019
302,400 pupils who were eligible for free school meals in October 2020 had a free school meal eligibility start date after 23 March 2020, when the first national pandemic lockdown was announced. In the same period in 2019, there were 208,500 pupils who became eligible for free school meals.
Not all pupils will have become eligible for the first time
While some of these pupils may have been eligible for free school meals previously, their latest spell has started since the first national lockdown began on 23 March 2020.
Nearly 72,000 pupils who became eligible are in Reception class
71,800 pupils who started Reception class in September 2020 and had not previously been recorded as eligible for free school meals are also included. For the same period in 2019, 61,000 pupils who became eligible for free school meals started Reception in September 2019. As nearly all of these pupils will not have been assessed for free school meals before, they are known to make up a large proportion of newly eligible pupils each year.