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 2022.
The number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased during 2020
In January 2021, 1.74 million pupils were eligible for free school meals, 20.8% of all pupils. This is an increase of nearly 300,000 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 January 2021 is higher than each of these previous year on year increases.
Due to the transitional protections described above, these pre-pandemic year on year increases were 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 420,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first national lockdown began.
427,000 pupils who were eligible for free school meals in January 2021 had a free school meal eligibility start date after 23 March 2020, when the first national pandemic lockdown was announced. For the similar period before the pandemic, March 23rd 2019 to January 2020, there were almost 292,000 pupils who became eligible for free school meals.
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.
Universal Infant Free school meals
1.7 million infant pupils were recorded as taking a free school meal on census day as if in normal circumstances, of which 1.3 million are not normally eligible for FSM through the criteria above and received them under the Universal Infant FSM policy.
Free school meal eligibility varies by region
The highest rates are seen in the North East where 27.5% are eligible for free school meals, and West Midlands where 24.5% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. These areas also show the largest increase from 2020.
By contrast, 16.0% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in the South East and 16.6% of pupils are eligible in the East of England. However, all regions show some increase from 2020.