50,000 more pupils to get free school meals

An extra 50,000 pupils will receive free school meals under proposals for a new earnings threshold put out for consultation by the government today.

Under the proposals, developed in response to the roll-out of a new benefits system, pupils from universal credit-claiming households with incomes of up to £24,000 will be eligible for free school meals.

It means around 50,000 more pupils will be eligible than are currently, the government says.

Universal credit is currently being rolled out in some areas of the country, replacing several different benefits that currently dictate which pupils can claim free school meals. This also affects schools’ pupil premium funding, which is based on free school meals’ claimant numbers.

Schools Week revealed at the weekend that pupils with a household income of up to £55,000 would become eligible to claim free meals under universal credit, because of the complex way the new system works.

This change would have “poisoned” free school meals data in the January school census, because so many more pupils would have been included than in previous years, making data impossible to compare.

The proposed new threshold is £7,400 per year, but the government says once benefits are taken into account, a typical family earning that amount will take home between £18,000 and £24,000.

This is higher than the £16,200 earnings threshold that currently entitles pupils to free meals, but much lower than the £55,000 threshold that would have come in without the proposed changes.

Robert Goodwill, the children’s minister, said the proposals should protect not just those children already receiving free school meals and additional school funding, but see “thousands more benefiting from this support in future”.

This is an important issue and we need to get this right

“This is an important issue and we need to get this right to make sure we continue to help those children most in need. That’s why it is vital that we hear from teachers, early years professionals and families throughout this consultation.”

The new system will still drag thousands more pupils into the “free school meal” bracket, which is used as a main indicator of pupil disadvantage, making data incomparable with previous years.

Universal credit continues to be rolled out in some areas, with the whole benefits model due to be changed by 2022.

Andy Ratcliffe, chief executive of the charity Impetus-The Private Equity Foundation, said at the weekend that the inconsistent roll-out and change in eligibility will make school census data “useless” in terms of making comparisons to previous cohorts for at least the next seven years.

The new earnings threshold will be introduced in April next year if the plans go ahead. Academies will be able to access the local authorities’ eligibility checking system, to see which families should be on free school meals.