“Analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than 1 million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge.”
Sharon Hodgson MP, 6 February 2018
The Children’s Society has estimated that more than one million children living in relative poverty in England will not get a free school meal under new rules. This is a rough estimate which makes a number of assumptions based on available data. It is not a calculation of how many children will miss out compared to the old benefit-linked system.
The government is introducing a new earnings threshold—the “cliff edge” referred to here—children in families earning under this amount are eligible for free school meals. This replaces previous eligibility rules which were tied to whether families received certain benefits, and replaces temporary measures which extended eligibility to all households receiving Universal Credit during the roll-out.
The government has said that by 2022 an additional 50,000 children will claim free school meals under the new system compared to if the old benefits-linked system continued. This excludes children whose eligibility is protected under the roll-out period. It hasn’t published the full methodology used to reach this figure so it’s not possible to verify it.
The Children’s Society’s figures also seek to measure the number of children who end up receiving free school meals, instead of the number who are eligible. So these estimates don’t just reflect the eligibility criteria, but also the lower proportions of children who end up claiming and receiving free school meals.
The Children’s Society has also made a separate claim that one million children will lose out on free school meals under the new rules compared to if all children in households claiming Universal Credit received free meals once it’s fully rolled out. We haven’t looked at this claim in this piece.
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Universal Credit and eligibility for free school meals
Universal Credit is a new benefit that replaces a range of existing benefits. Roll-out of Universal Credit started in 2013, and is expected to be completed by 2022.
Before the introduction of Universal Credit, children could receive free school meals if their family received any of a list of benefits, including income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, and child tax credit.
Since 2013, children in all families moving to Universal Credit have been eligible for free school meals. The government introduced this as a temporary measure, which expanded eligibility, and is now introducing a new income threshold to replace this.
From April, English school children in Year Three or above and in households receiving Universal Credit will be eligible for free school meals if their family earns below £7,400 per year, before benefits are taken into account.
All infant school children will continue to receive free school meals in England.
Children who were eligible for free school meals before April will continue to receive them while Universal Credit is being rolled out, even if their family’s income rises above the new threshold. Those who become eligible under the new rules after April will also be protected against losing eligibility if their income rises during the roll-out.
And after the roll-out is complete, children who received free school meals during the roll-out will continue to receive them until they move to a new stage of school, such as from primary into secondary school.
The government is introducing these changes because it says it wants to “target support to those families and children most in need”, rather than having wider eligibility criteria. The government has estimated that after the rollout half of UK children will be in households that receive Universal Credit—which would make roughly the same number eligible for free school meals if they made the temporary eligibility to all Universal Credit claimants permanent.
Under the old system, 14% of school children were eligible for and receiving free school meals in January 2017.
The Children’s Society’s estimates
The Children’s Society says that under the income threshold “a million children in poverty will miss out on a free school meal”.
As the Children’s Society also says, this is not new. In January 2017, 1.1 million children in English primary and secondary schools were eligible for and claiming free school meals, while there were between 2.2 million and 4.1 million children living in poverty in 2016/17, depending on the measure used.
However, the Children’s Society are saying that if eligibility continued for all children in households claiming Universal Credit, then all children living in poverty would be eligible. That said, eligibility for Universal Credit is not directly based on whether a family is living in poverty, and takes into account a number of factors.
The Children’s Society has pulled together a combination of sources to make its estimate. These estimates are limited by the available data.
Broadly, its claim is based on combining an estimate of the number of children eligible for free school meals under the old system, with the government’s estimate that 50,000 more children will receive meals by 2022 under the new system. It does this to estimate how many will be eligible under the new rules. It then compares this to the number of children in relative poverty, after housing costs, in 2015/16. So it combines figures for recent years with forecasts for the future.
There are a number of other factors affecting these estimates.
One issue is that the official figures do not distinguish between infants claiming free school meals as part of the Universal Free School Meals policy (which will not be changing), and older primary school children claiming free school meals.
This means that to get estimates for the number of children in Year Three and above—those who will be affected by the eligibility change—the Children’s Society has had to look at what proportion of children are in Year Three and above and apply this to some of the figures. Doing this won’t account for differences in take-up rates of free school meals between infants and older children.
A similar issue affects its calculations of the number of children in poverty—it has applied the proportion of children living in relative poverty to its estimate of the number of children in Year Three and above, to estimate how many of them are living in poverty. This won’t account for any differences in poverty levels by children’s ages.
Lastly, not all eligible parents register for free school meals. According to research collated by the Children’s Food Trust charity in 2013, reasons for this include being unaware of their eligibility, having difficulty understanding the application process; stigma; objections to the food itself; and other reasons such as wanting to sit with friends having packed lunches.
The Children’s Society has taken account of this by using official figures for the numbers of children who received free school meals on the day of the school census when these figures are collected. That means these figures won’t take account of children who may receive free school meals some or most of the time but who didn’t receive them on this day.
The government’s calculations use an estimate of the number of eligible children who end up claiming free school meals, based on research it undertook in 2013. So unlike the Children’s Society’s estimates, this doesn’t take account of children who claim but don’t end up taking the meals.
The government’s estimates
The government estimates that the changes to the system will result in around 50,000 more pupils claiming free school meals by 2022, compared to the number that would have been eligible by that time under the old benefits system.
It also estimated in its earlier consultation on the changes that around 90% of pupils who were eligible for free school meals under the old system will still be eligible under the new system—so around 10% would lose eligibility. It told us this excludes the transitional protections being put in place.
It hasn’t published the full methodology used to reach these figures or the numbers behind them so it’s not possible to verify them.
It has published some details regarding the 50,000 figure. It said it has used two Department for Work and Pensions’ models to estimate the number of people that will move onto Universal Credit by 2022, whether their earnings will be above or below £7,400, and whether they would be eligible for free school meals if they were on the old benefits system.
It then estimates:
- the number of children who would not have been eligible for free school meals under the old system, but will be under the new system.
- the number of children who would have been eligible under the old system, but won’t be eligible under the new system.
The government says that the difference between these two numbers is 50,000.
Children who are protected during the roll-out are excluded from the government’s analysis.
It also adjusts the data to account for the fact that not all eligible families claim—using an estimate from 2013 that around 11% of pupils who are eligible don’t claim.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has also looked at how many more children will be eligible under the new system. Similar to the government, it found that around 50,000 more children across the UK would be eligible. That includes 160,000 children who would become ineligible compared to the old system and 210,000 who would become eligible having not been before.
But it says that 70,000 more may end up receiving the meals. This is because it estimates that take up of free school meals will increase under Universal Credit.
The detail of the Children’s Society’s calculations
Here’s the full break-down of how it calculated the figures:
1 - It estimates 5.8 million children are in Year Three and above
In total there were about 5.7 million children in Year Three and above, including secondary schools and special schools in 2017. Of those in primary school, 52% were in Year Three and above.
There is a separate data set of pupils eligible for free school meals, which confusingly includes a slightly larger number of pupils because it counts additional nurseries not included in the other data set. This doesn’t provide a breakdown by year group so the Children’s Society has applied the 52% from the previous dataset to these figures, estimating that there are about 5.8 million children in Year 3 and above.
2 - It estimates about 17% of children are eligible for free school meals based on the old system linked to specific benefits
Then it estimated the number of children eligible for free school meals under the old benefits-linked system. There is only official data for how many children end up claiming free school meals, so it had to use tax credit data to work out how many are eligible.
There were 2.3 million children in families receiving the maximum child tax credit or child allowances as part of other benefits in 2015/16, according to official data. Other benefits also give families eligibility to free school meals, but the Children’s Society says these two are a good general indication.
It then compares this to the total number of children in the UK in 2015/16, to find that about 17% of children are entitled to free school meals.
3 - It estimates about 985,000 children in Year Three and above are eligible for free school meals under the old criteria
Applying the proportion from (2) to the school population in (1), it estimates 985,000 children in England in Year Three and above are eligible for free school meals.
4 - It estimates that about one million children in Year Three and above would be entitled under the new proposals
It then then adds 60,000 to the estimate from (3). This is the 50,000 extra children the government estimates will get a meal under the new rules, with an extra 10,000 added to roughly account for the difference between the number of children who are eligible for a free school meal and the number who actually take a meal.
It adds this to make an estimate of how many children will be eligible under the new rules.
Adding these two suggests that 1,045,000 children in Year Three and above are entitled to free school meals.
5 - It estimates that about 680,000 children would be likely to claim free school meals
About 900,000 children actually took a free school meal on the day of the school census in January 2017. The Children’s Society estimates this includes about 640,000 children in Year Three and above—based on the numbers of pupils in these school years from (1).
It says this implies that 65% of entitled children took a free school meal, taken as a proportion of the 985,000 children it estimates are entitled to free school meals under the old benefits-linked system.
Using this proportion, and applying it to the total in (4) the Children’s Society estimates that 680,000 children would be likely to take a meal.
6 - It estimates that roughly 1.7 million children in year three and above are in relative poverty
An estimated 29% of children in England were living in relative poverty in 2015/16, after housing costs are taken into account—according to official statistics. That counts children aged 0-16, and up to 19 years old if they’re still classed as dependent on their parents.
The Children’s Society says that applying this to the number of school children in Year Three and above (1), suggests roughly 1.7 million are living in relative poverty.
So that’s a million more than the 680,000 children it estimates would end up receiving free school meals.