From the CEO: Act now on Free School Meals or risk a ‘lost generation’

Free School Meals


In our latest blog, CEO Leigh Elliott calls on the Government to urgently tackle the inequality within Free School Meals eligibility, as new data reveals families in need are being left behind.

This week, new data has been shared by Department for Education (DfE) offering a stark insight into how the current free school meals offer is increasingly not fit for purpose.


The Department’s annual census of Schools, pupils and their characteristics contained shocking insight into the growth of child poverty across the UK and the urgent need for change to pupil premium eligibility to ensure it meets the needs of families facing financial hardship.


Many UK families face a cost of living crisis. Inflation of living costs currently stands at 9%, with expectations it will continue to rise; far ahead of the average, much lower wage growth of 4%. Those receiving Universal Credit are in a worse position, with families with the lowest incomes facing 11% inflation, whilst receiving only a 3.1% increase in benefits.


This rapid increase in the cost of living is pushing many families on lower incomes into financial crisis and poverty. Others are experiencing short-term financial shocks that leave them battling to make ends meet. Whatever the foundation for their situation, no parent should need to decide whether to heat or feed their family or skip meals to ensure their child is fed.


The new DfE data reveals that there has been a 10% increase in eligibility for free school meals in the past year, but this growth is the tip of the iceberg, hiding the true picture of need. For example, the latest data shows that 29% of North East children are eligible for free school meals, yet we know that even before the pandemic and cost of living crisis 37% of North East children lived in poverty. Both sets of data have been collated and published by our government, so why does their current free school meals provision not meet the needs they have identified?


Our Cost of the School Day England partners, Child Poverty Action Group estimate across the UK 800,000 pupils are missing out on free school meals, one-in-three of all children living in poverty. This scale is shocking.


In February this year, we called on Ministers to level up the current free school meals offer and ‘put the inadequacies of the free school meals system in England right’.


Joining forces with the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC), Schools North East and Child Poverty Action Group, we asked the government to extend the free school meal offer to all families in receipt of benefits and introduce automatic registration for free schools, to increase uptake among eligible families.


With the rapidly changing landscape of costs for families, it is now more important than ever to make these changes. The government must give children and families on the edge of crisis and the long-term impacts of poverty the same support as their peers. We call on the government to act now or risk a ‘lost generation’ of young people left to live with the impact on their health, education and opportunity to thrive.