Over the last year, free school meals have become a major talking point. From the campaign by Marcus Rashford in England to three major debates in the Senedd and many articles in print and online media, it seems as though a lot of people are discussing free school meals.
But what are free school meals? Who are entitled to them and why is everyone talking about them? What about free school breakfasts?
What are free school meals?
All schools provide meals for pupils and the Education Act 1996 granted powers to local authorities to charge parents for meals. The meals provided to children should be nutritious and meet guidelines as set out by the Welsh Government in the Healthy Eating in Schools (2009) Measure and subsequent Healthy Eating in Schools (Nutritional Standards and requirements) (Wales) regulations 2013. For some children, the local authority will cover the cost of the meals. Right now, there are more than 85,000 children eligible for free school meals in Wales.
Who is entitled to free school meals?
Any child who attends a maintained (local authority run) school full-time and whose parents or guardians are in receipt of income-related benefits may be entitled. There is currently an income threshold of £7,400, so children of parents who earn above this amount will not be eligible.
Even if these criteria are met, children are not automatically given free school meals. Their parents will have to submit an application to the local authority where the child attends school. Increasingly, local authorities are allowing online applications to make it easier for parents and schools can also provide guidance before an application is made. Some schools will even contact parents who they think may be eligible to ask if they want to apply, this is due to the additional funding a school can be provided through the Local Government Settlement or Pupil Deprivation Grant.
In recent years benefits have changed, and therefore the rules affecting free school meal eligibility has also had to change. Children who lost their eligibility during these rule changes were given transitional protection – meaning that they will continue to receive free school meals until 31st December 2023. Due to the nature of these rules, some families may be one of their children receive support through transitional protection and a younger sibling not being entitled.
Why is everyone talking about free school meals?
There are two reasons why free school meals have been in the news a lot over the last year. The first is that the covid pandemic and school closures have meant that there was significant pressure on authorities to continue providing support. The footballer Marcus Rashford led a campaign to put pressure on the UK Government to do so in England.
In Wales, the Welsh Government announced early that each child eligible for free school meals would be allocated £19.50 per week (£3.90 per day) while schools were closed, when a child was self-isolating, and during school holidays. This was provided to parents either as a food voucher, a direct payment or a food parcel. The quality of these food parcels has been the subject of debate, with many parents taking to social media to share photos of their food parcels. There has also been debate over whether direct payments are better that parcels or vouchers, as they show greater trust in parents and allow for more cost-effective purchases tailored to their child’s tastes.
The second reason why free school meals have been in the news, particularly in Wales, is because charities and political parties have suggested that the eligibility rules do not meet every family in need and should be reviewed. An analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group found that the £7,400 income threshold has left many children whose parents may be living below the poverty line, in receipt of universal credit but earning above the income threshold, unable to claim this free school meal support. Due to the additional support families can receive should their child be entitled to free school meals – such as support in the cost of uniforms – this may lead to a family earning just above the threshold facing significant additional costs. They have suggested that over 70,000 children may fall into this category, with a further 6,000 children living in families who have no recourse to public funds and are therefore similarly ineligible.
The Welsh Government have responded to this by saying they are proud of their support for free school meals, particularly the additional support provided during the pandemic, and will conduct a rapid review into all available resource and policy options – including the income threshold.
What about free school breakfasts?
Primary schools in Wales also provide free school breakfasts. This policy was initially introduced in 2004 via special grant funding, however since April 2013 funding for free school breakfasts for all primary aged children has been protected in legislation and funded through the revenue support grant provided to all local authorities.
All primary aged children are eligible for this.
With the new Senedd, the debate on free school meals looks set to continue. In the meantime, if you want further information on free school meals, please read through the guidance issued by the Welsh Government here or contact your local authority.