Universal free school meals: idealism or the way forward?

By Julia Harnden, ASCL Funding Specialist

Access to a nutritious diet has important health and educational benefits for children and young people. Improved diet increases concentration and can potentially decrease health inequalities.

It would be difficult to find anyone prepared to challenge that statement, and yet in the depths of a cost-of-living crisis we are, it seems, prepared to accept that 800,000 children living in poverty are not eligible for a free meal at school

In primary schools in England, children in reception to Year 2 all receive free school meals under the universal infant free school meal (UIFSM) scheme. After that, the eligibility threshold is set at an annual household income of less than £7,400 before benefits. In other words, you have to be extremely poor to qualify. 

Many organisations, including ASCL, are campaigning for government to raise the household earnings threshold for free school meals entitlement to all children and young people (up to the age of 19) from families in receipt of Universal Credit, so that more children and young people living in poverty are eligible for free school meals. A recent Insititute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report suggests there are 1.7million children who would benefit from scrapping the income cap. The  spring budget provided an excellent opportunity for government to make this change. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed. 

A key theme of ASCL's Blueprint for a Fairer Education System warns against making the mistake of seeing excellence and equity as conflicting aspirations for our young people. Surely a system that is better for disadvantaged children and young people is better for everyone, so perhaps we should be thinking bigger about the benefits of expanding free school meal provision?

Imagine if all children and young people were entitled to the same nutritious, healthy meal options at school. That feels like an equitable food system that would benefit all children, end the stigma of FSM, and contribute to a healthier population into adulthood. 

Core benefits
In 2022, Impact on Urban Health working with PWC, produced a cost benefit analysis (CBA) of free school meal expansion. The headline findings indicated that every £1 invested in universal provision would generate £1.71 in core benefits*. The CBA evidence suggests that almost half of the benefit would be realised in increased lifetime earnings and contributions, and 54% would be realised in cost-of-living savings for families. Over a 25-year period, the research estimates a total core benefit of around £41 billion, and if we take wider indirect benefits** into account, that figure could be approaching £100 billion.

If universal FSM were to be introduced in 2025, the CBA indicates an additional cost of provision of around £1.8 billion per year. Realistically, this timeline is unachievable on a practical level; increasing capacity in school kitchens and dining halls for example takes time and additional capital investment. A target of say 2030 is more realistic. 

In their report The policy menu for school lunches, the IFS also consider universalism as an option, however, they indicate that the additional cost of provision would be around £2.5 billion per year. The IFS study considers the impact of expanding FSM on the current workforce and concludes that making FSM universal implies the strongest work incentives; families would no longer lose FSM entitlement by working more.

Gaining momentum
In the context of affordability at school level this is tricky, some might say idealistic, but for many reasons, now is the time to take part in the conversation if you haven’t already, because as a policy option, universalism is already gaining momentum across the UK. 

The Welsh government has committed to rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils by September 2024.The Scottish government is gradually rolling out universal free school meals to all primary school pupils, and from next September, all primary pupils in state-funded schools in London will get a free school meal.

There is a hidden complexity to this too. For many years, FSM eligibility has been a driver for funding and accountability as a proxy for disadvantage. Practically speaking, making any serious changes to free meal provision will require breaking this link. That could easily slip into the 'too difficult drawer', but being hard to do should not be a reason to dismiss it. 

In their report Measuring pupil disadvantage: The case for change, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) highlights risks to accurately identifying genuine progress in reducing the attainment gap in future years. The report includes several proposals to address this risk, one of which is to explore the feasibility of establishing a household income-based measure of disadvantage. The suggestion is that this would provide a more direct and informative measure of disadvantage than FSM eligibility. Changing the mechanism for determining disadvantage in this way might just be the answer to de-coupling FSM eligibility and funding for additionality and the pupil premium grant. 

In other words, the core benefits of universal free school meals could be realised by everyone and children from disadvantaged families would continue to attract targeted funding (pupil premium) to support closing the attainment gap.

This feels like the right time to use our collective experience and become part of this narrative. Is a universal free school meals policy idealism or the way forward? 

Julia Harnden is ASCL’s Funding Specialist

Core benefits are those arising directly from the children in receipt of FSM. In this CBA they include education, employment, health and nutrition.
** Wider indirect benefits are generated over and above core benefits and consider the school food economy more broadly.

Posted: 17/04/2023 09:13:55