Children in state-funded schools in England are entitled to receive free school meals if a parent or carer were in receipt of any of the following benefits:
- 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 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.
Since 1 April 2018, transitional protections have been in place which will continue 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.
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 2023.
The number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased during 2021
In January 2022, 1.9 million pupils were eligible for free school meals, 22.5% of all pupils. This is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils since January 2021, when 1.74 million (20.8%) of pupils were eligible for free school meals.
The number of pupils eligible for FSM was increasing before the COVID-19 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 during the first period of the pandemic, from January 2020 to 20.8% in January 2021, was higher than each of these previous year on year increases. The increase to January 2022 is in line with those increases seen prior to the pandemic.
Due to the transitional protections described above, these year on year increases continue to be reflected in increasing numbers of pupils who are FSM eligible as pupils flow on to free school meals when becoming eligible, but protections mean pupils do not flow off in a similar way.
Free school meal eligibility varies by region
The highest eligibility rates are seen in the North East where 29.1% are eligible for free school meals, and West Midlands where 26.5% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. The regions which have shown the largest increases are London and West Midlands with increases of 2 percentage points over the 2021 rates.
By contrast, 17.6% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in the South East and 18.2% of pupils are eligible in the East of England. However, all regions show some increase from 2021.
Free school meal eligibility varies by year group
FSM eligibility rates are highest for pupils during the years of compulsory schooling, Reception to Year 11. The proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals typically peaks among pupils of primary age - in 2022 it was 26.7% for Year 4 pupils - and declines throughout the secondary phase. There are high rates of FSM eligibility among pupils in Year 14 and those not following the national curriculum. These are small cohorts including pupils retaking the final year of key stage 5 and pupils in some special schools.
Free school meals eligibility varies by ethnicity
Rates of free school meals eligibility in 2022 were highest among pupils in the Traveller of Irish heritage ethnic group (63.3%) and Gypsy/Roma ethnic group (51.9%). Rates were lowest among pupils of Indian (7.5%) and Chinese ethnic groups (7.8%).
Universal Infant Free school meals
1.6 million infant pupils were recorded as taking a free school meal on census day, of which almost 1.3 million are not normally eligible for FSM through the criteria above and received them under the Universal Infant FSM policy. The proportion of infant pupils taking a free school meal on census day rose to a peak of 88% in 2019 and has since fallen to 85% in 2022. Breakdowns of UIFSM take up by local authority and region are now available in the underlying data and via the table tool.
Eligibility for free school meals during the previous six years
This publication includes data on the number of pupils who are known to have been eligible for free school meals at any time during the previous six years. The data is available by ethnicity and National Curriculum year group in underlying data files and via the table tool.