New analysis by Policy in Practice about how to fund Free School Meals finds that parents will have to earn almost three times more than it would cost the government to feed their children over the Christmas holidays.

The government’s decision to not extend the free school meal vouchers to the October half term has become a hotly contested issue over the last few weeks. Our analysis backs Marcus Rashford’s campaign to expand free school meals to all children in families in receipt of Universal Credit, and undermines the argument made by some backbenchers that “It’s not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays”.

What it costs to fund Free School Meals

The government issued meal vouchers worth £3 a day during the Easter and summer school holidays for each child that qualified for free school meals. Because of the way in which Universal Credit is withdrawn, at a rate of 63 pence for each pound earned, parents keep 37p for each pound they earn. This means that parents earning above their work allowance would have to earn £8.11 to pay for a school meal costing the government £3. With the minimum wage at £8.72 per hour, this means that a parent would have to work one additional hour per child, per school day to pay for their school meal. This would be challenging in normal circumstances, and impossible during a pandemic.

The work allowance is £292 per month for people with housing costs, or eight hours per week at the minimum wage, or £512 per month and 14 hours per week for people without housing costs, meaning that this level of earnings would be reached by almost anyone entering work.

Without action from the government, parents will have to find an additional £81 per child over the Christmas holidays. This equates to an additional £117m when extrapolated to all families in receipt of free school meals, compared to £43m for the government.

The cost of free school meals

Cost to government
Cost to parents
Daily cost of a free school meal£3.00£8.11
Cost over the Christmas holiday£30.00£81.08
Cost over 13 weeks of school holidays£195.00£527.03
Total cost over Christmas£43 million£117 million
Total cost over all school holidays£281 million£759 million

This analysis builds on a report originally put to the Social Security Advisory Committee in 2013 to improve work incentives within Universal Credit, and to the department for education in 2018, as part of a joint campaign with the Children’s Society and Child Poverty Action Group to extend free school meals to all children in receipt of Universal Credit.

The campaign calls on the government to extend free school meals to all children on Universal Credit. This is because the most a household can earn and still be eligible for free school meals is £617 per month. Once they cross this threshold, they face a considerable cliff-edge in their work incentives.

Universal Credit Data: An alternative to funded free school meals

This half term, the government has asked local authorities to bridge the gap, referencing the £9 million holiday activities and food programme funding and the £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with urgent needs. We argue that there is more government can do to help local authorities target support to children and families most in need.

Learn how we helped Croydon Council to use their administrative data to target food vouchers to families most in need.

It’s possible for the government to identify every child eligible for healthy start vouchers using Universal Credit data. Councils can use this data to identify families facing food insecurity, and help them to access a host of other benefits during this pandemic, including council tax support and social tariffs.

Graphic showing eligibility for free school meals and food vouchers to accompany Policy in Practice's analysis about how to fund free school meals

Policy in Practice has written to DWP calling for Universal Credit data to be shared across government. Our white paper on the public interest case for Universal Credit data argues that sharing data with local authorities can improve the pandemic response. We continue to engage constructively with the department on this and other social security issues.

In summary, Policy in Practice is a proud signatory to Marcus Rashford’s petition to end child food hunger. We have previously called on the government to extend free school meals to 1 million more children on Universal Credit, to improve work incentives for families.

It’s difficult for parents to work during the school holidays at the best of times. To expect parents to find additional earnings during a pandemic, when it costs the government 60% less to achieve the same end goal, is unrealistic. The government is best placed to take responsibility.

Next steps

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

Register for an upcoming webinar

TitleDateStart TimeDurationRegister
Reducing barriers to work using data led campaigns In September 2023 the UK experienced an economic inactivity rate of 21.3% and an estimated unemployment rate of 4.3%, both of which have increased compared to previous data. Economic inactivity has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, prompting government efforts to integrate this group into the workforce.

Historically, policies under Universal Credit and legacy benefits emphasised pushing people into employment through conditionality and short term measures. Today, both major political parties are exploring ways to facilitate return to work and eliminate barriers to employment. However, the government is also extending conditionality and adopting a tougher stance on sanctions for a broader range of people.

Haringey is home to a young, ethnically diverse population. In June 2023, almost one fifth of those between 16 to 65 were on Universal Credit. Nearly 7% of residents over 16 were claiming unemployment related benefits, a figure above the London average of 4.7% and the 3rd highest rate of all UK councils

Haringey Council wanted to find ways to overcome barriers to employment for young people and families with children and has used data to achieve success with its employment support programmes.

Join this webinar to learn:

- The new carrot and stick policy changes designed to break down barriers to work and reduce economic inactivity
- What Haringey Council did to increase take up of free childcare for two year olds to 70%
- How Haringey Council successfully helped 95 NEETs on their employment journey

With guest speakers from Haringey Council
29/11/202310:30 GMT1.3 hours
Policy review of 2023 and what 2024 may hold Join our last webinar of 2023 to hear our policy analysts review 2023's policy changes and big issues, from the ongoing cost of living and energy crises to the funding of local government and the Autumn Statement.

We will highlight our policy findings from the year including our work that revealed that millions of households across the UK are missing out on £19 billion of support each year.

We'll look at the role that data is playing in helping leading organisations to tackle these issues.

Through case studies of different types of households we'll look at what the changes mean for families now, and what 2024 has in store.

Along the way we'll share the positive impact that organisations we work with ​are having, and give practical solutions that others can adopt.
6/12/202310:30 GMT1.3 hours
How the debt sector is connecting people to support31/1/202410:30 GMT1.3 hours
Skip to content
%d bloggers like this: