“It is an absolute scandal that the Conservatives are pressing ahead with a plan that could leave over a million children without a hot meal in schools.”
That was the claim from Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, last week.
But it’s not quite the full story. Here’s why.
Who gets a free school meal?
Children in England who are in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are all entitled to free school meals. That’s not changing. Where it gets complicated is when we look at what happens from Year 3 onwards.
Since 2013, the government has been rolling out Universal Credit, replacing the old benefits system. Some areas, like Croydon, have already switched; others are still waiting.
Under the old system, children are entitled to free school meals if their parents receive an out of work benefit like Jobseekers’ Allowance. They only lose their entitlement once their parent or parents start working 16 hours a week (if there’s one adult in the house), or 24 hours a week (if there are two).
While the government have been rolling out the new benefit system, they’ve relaxed the eligibility rules so that all families receiving Universal Credit have been entitled to free school meals, regardless of income or hours worked.
This month, the government announced that they’re going to introduce a means test so that if you’re on Universal Credit and you’re earning more than £7,400 from work, your children will no longer be entitled to free school meals if they’re in Year 3 or above.
The government estimates: “A typical family earning around this threshold, depending on their exact circumstances, would have a total annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account.”
Here’s why Labour are partly right
Labour told us they used figures from the Children’s Society to calculate their claim that the government’s planned changes would leave “over a million children without a hot meal in schools.”
A spokesperson for the charity explained that if the government continued to allow every family on Universal Credit to receive free school meals, 2.8 million children would be entitled.
We know that only about 65 per cent of children who are eligible for free school meals actually take them up. (Often because parents don’t realise their children are entitled.) On that basis, they would expect about 1.8 million children to take up free school meals in England if everyone on Universal Credit was eligible.
The government’s plan to introduce a means test to free school meals will reduce the total number of children who are entitled to free school meals to 1 million. Assuming a 65 per cent take up rate, that means only about 650,000 children will be getting a free hot meal at school.
In short: if everyone on Universal Credit were entitled to free school meals, then by the time it was rolled out across the country, 1.8 million children would have a free school meal every day. The new means test will see only about 650,000 children on free school meals. That’s a difference of just over a million.
Here’s why Labour aren’t telling the whole story
We can’t fault the maths. But it’s important to give context to Labour’s claim.
This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children who are currently receiving them. It’s about comparing two future, hypothetical scenarios, one of which is more generous than the other.
The Department of Education has made clear that no one who currently gets free school meals as part of the early rollout of Universal Credit will lose their entitlement once the rollout is complete. The people who will be subject to the means test are future Universal Credit claimants.
It’s also worth pointing out that the government has never said that the policy of allowing everyone on Universal Credit to access free school meals would be permanent.
In April 2013, the then-junior skills minister, Matthew Hancock, told Parliament that the government would look carefully at the “marginal withdrawal rate” of benefits like free school meals. In other words: the government anticipated that free school meals could be subject to some form of means or eligibility test, once Universal Credit was fully rolled out.
In July 2017, junior education minister, Robert Goodwill, said “As an interim measure, all pupils whose parents are in receipt of UC [Universal Credit] are currently entitled to FSM [free school meals].” The key word here is “interim.”
And perhaps the most important piece of context to bring to Labour’s claim is that more children will be entitled to free school meals under Universal Credit than under the previous benefits system.
The Department for Education says: “we estimate that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal compared to the previous benefits system.”
It’s worth saying that Labour would go much further: at the last election, they pledged to give all primary school children a free school meal.
Although the Institute for Fiscal Studies said such a plan would cost upwards of £950 million a year, and other policies, such as free breakfast clubs “might be a cheaper and more effective way to improve both education and health outcomes.”
There’s some respectable maths behind Labour’s claim that a million children will lose out on free school meals after the government introduces a means test.
But they haven’t mentioned two key points:
- No one who is currently eligible for free school meals under Universal Credit will lose their entitlement.
- In fact, under Universal Credit, 50,000 more children will receive school meals by 2022 than would have done under the previous benefits system.
This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children who are currently receiving them: it’s about comparing two future, hypothetical scenarios. Both of them are more generous than the old benefits system.
Additional reporting by Sam Ellison.