THE CHILD POVERTY ACTION GROUP (CPAG), has published new analysis based on free school meals data released by the Department for Education, showing that children in poverty in England continue to be overlooked by government measures.

Over one in three (800,000) children in poverty do not qualify for free school meals.

While Scotland and Wales are stepping up support for families by moving to a universal model of free school meals provision in primary schools, CPAG says England lags far behind, and continues to means-test the provision using restrictive eligibility criteria.

To be eligible for free school meals, a household on universal credit in England must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits), regardless of the number of children in the family. This low threshold means that many children from working families in poverty are not entitled to free school meals, despite being unable to meet the costs.

The charity warns that children are going hungry as a result of a lack of action on free school meals, and is calling for immediate changes to make sure all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits can access a vital meal each day. It is also calling for a move towards universal provision of free school meals, an approach that would increase take-up and reduce stigma.

Kate Anstey, head of the UK Cost of the School Day programme at Child Poverty Action Group, said: “We know families are being left to make impossible decisions, with many parents simply unable to afford lunches but desperately not wanting their children to go without. Food is vital to children’s health, wellbeing and learning, and the government cannot continue to stand by while children in poverty go hungry at lunchtime. No other part of the school day is means-tested in this way – universal free school meals should simply be a fundamental part of going to school.”

The Scottish government is gradually rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils. Pupils from Primary One to Five are now eligible, with the full roll-out all the way to Primary Seven expected to be completed later in the parliamentary term.

The Welsh government has committed to rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils by September 2024, using a phased approach, starting with the youngest pupils from September 2022.

In England, all children in Reception, Year One and Year Two currently receive a free meal each day. After that, provision of free school meals is means-tested, with the threshold to get free school meals being a combined household income of £7,400 or less before benefits.

Two weeks ago, School and Education Union leaders representing more than a million teachers, support staff and others working with children, wrote to the chancellor Rishi Sunak and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, asking that free school meals are offered to all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits.

* Read the letter from education unions here.

* Source: Child Poverty Action Group