EVERY North West local authority has at least 1,500 school-age children in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals because the qualifying criteria is so restrictive, new analysis shows.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA), authors of the new research, are urging local leaders to do what they can to ensure more children get a free lunch, but say the responsibility ultimately lies with the UK government to expand provision of free school meals across the country to tackle classroom hunger.

Infants are guaranteed a free school meal in England but children in Year 3 and above must be in households on universal credit with an income below £7,400 per year (before benefits and after tax) to qualify. This threshold has not changed since 2018, despite increasing inflation. It means 100,000 (one in four) school-age children in poverty across the North West cannot claim free meals – at a time when one in three children in the region are below the poverty line and the cost of living crisis continues to bite.

The analysis highlights the stark inadequacy of the current free school meals system for families, with the number of school-age children who are poor but ineligible for free lunches ranging from 1,500 in Halton to 15,000 in Lancashire.

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of education policy Kate Anstey said: “Seeing the statistics at local level brings this issue home. Children in every corner of the North West are sitting in classrooms too hungry to concentrate and learn because they don’t qualify for a free school meal. Too many children are being let down by the Government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold – and these numbers should act as a wake-up call. The Government must bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs. Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past.”

Graham Whitham, CEO at Greater Manchester Poverty Action, said: “Child poverty rates have been rising in the North West for a number of years, and families across the region have been hit hard by soaring living costs. At a time when every penny counts, it cannot be right that 100,000 North West kids in poverty can’t claim free school meals.

“Low-income families are under immense financial pressure at the moment and introducing universal free school meals would mean they have that bit extra to spend on other bills and household essentials. It would also improve their children’s nutrition, ultimately helping them to learn, engage and thrive.”

Government action on free school meals in England lags far behind other UK nations. In Scotland and Wales universal provision is being rolled out across primary schools and in Northern Ireland the eligibility threshold is considerably higher than in England (eligibility is set at £14,000 in Northern Ireland). Emergency funding provided by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also means all state primary school children in London will receive free school meals until the end of the 2024/25 academic school year.

The new analysis is published in a report from CPAG and GMPA which highlights examples of local action being taken in the North West to increase access to free school meals, encouraging local leaders to do what they can but also to join national calls for expansion of entitlement to free school lunch.

The report outlines existing research which shows children’s health, attainment and even school attendance is improved when free school meals are universal. Free lunches for every child would also be a significant step towards ensuring the UK meets its international human rights obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which states that children have the right to food, clothing and a safe space to live and that the government should help families and children who cannot afford this) and under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which guarantees the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger and identifies positive obligations on States to fulfil the right to adequate food when individuals are unable to do so themselves).

* Read the report, Free school meals in the North West here.

* Source: Child Poverty Action Group