The Department for Education (DfE) has said that it will retain the eligibility income threshold of £7,400 for Free School Meals (FSM).
In its response to its consultation into eligibility for FSM, the early years Pupil Premium and the free early education entitlement for two-year-olds under Universal Credit, the DfE said that it had listened to the concerns of parents, school caterers, charities and other bodies but stated that the proposed threshold was fair.
A consultation was published on 16th November, setting the intention to introduce an annual net earned income threshold of £7,400, with households earning under this threshold and receiving Universal Credit, to be eligible for FSM and the early years Pupil Premium. It claimed that under these proposals, by 2022 there would be around 50,000 more children benefiting from FSM compared to the previous benefits system.
However, the Children’s Society claimed that one million children in poverty would miss out on FSM under the new system, estimating that families beyond the threshold would have to earn £1,124 a year more, the equivalent of working 2.4 hours more each week, to make up for the loss in FSM. A petition set up by the Children’s Society gathered 8,421 emails in support.
Over half of the responses (560) to the consultation agreed with the DfE’s proposed earnings threshold, however, a significant proportion of respondents believed that FSM should be extended to all households on Universal Credit.
“Introducing a net earnings threshold remains the fairest and most practical way to ensure that children from the lowest-income families receive free school meals, and benefit from the early years pupil premium,” the DfE said in its response. It claims that the threshold is in line with the system in Scotland and that the threshold will be reviewed again once Universal Credit has been fully rolled out.
Eligibility will be verified monthly but also will take into account variable incomes.
Families currently receiving FSM but above the threshold will be protected, the DfE confirmed. From April 2018, all existing claimants will continue to receive FSM during the rollout period, even if their earnings increase. Once fully rolled out, existing claimants that no longer meet the eligibility criteria will then continue to receive FSM until their child has reached the end of their current phase of education (eg primary, secondary).
“These protections will mean that no family should lose out because of these changes. They are intended to be straightforward for schools to administer,” the DfE said.
Responding to the call for all families receiving Universal Credit to be eligible for FSM, the DfE said this would mean that around half of all pupils would become eligible for FSM, compared to the current rate of around 14%.
The DfE said: “While this is right as it ensures they are always encouraged to work and earn more, we must ensure that we use public money effectively and that free school meals go to disadvantaged families on low incomes.”
Read the full response here.