What is it and what does it mean for you?


The DfE’s guidance ‘Free school meals’, updated in April 2018, outlines schools’ responsibilities in providing FSM to disadvantaged pupils.

The guidance applies to school leaders, school staff and governing boards in all maintained schools, academies, free schools and LAs.

Under the Education Act 1996, all maintained schools and academies are required to provide FSM to disadvantaged pupils who are aged between 5 and 16-years-old.

The criteria used to determine the eligibility of pupils have been updated and will come into force on 1 April 2018 to reflect the introduction of Universal Credit and the phasing out of other income-based benefits.


Eligibility criteria


Pupils who are in receipt of, or whose parents are in receipt of, any of the following benefits are entitled to FSM:

  • Universal Credit – provided they have an annual income of less than £7,400
  • Income support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guarantee element of Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit – if the applicant is not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and has an annual gross income of no more than £16,190
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – this is paid for four weeks after someone stops qualifying for Working Tax Credit

As earnings can fluctuate from month to month, applicants who are in receipt of Universal Credit will have their earnings assessed over a period lasting up to three months – only complete assessment periods will be checked.


Self-employed parents 


A manual check is required to determine if self-employed parents who claim Universal Credit are eligible for FSM. These parents will need to provide evidence of the following:

  • They are in receipt of Universal Credit – this can be done by providing their Universal Credit award letter
  • They are self-employed – this can be done by providing a copy of their company registration or tax return form
  • Their monthly net earnings do not exceed the threshold

Schools should request that self-employed parents complete a self-declaration form.


Checking eligibility


Responsibility for checking the eligibility of applicants lies with individual schools; however, they can choose to work with LAs that carry out checks via the DfE’s Eligibility Checking System.

Schools should, where appropriate, record the date on which an initial application is received, and eligibility checks should be carried out promptly to ensure the most accurate and up-to-date information is being used. Schools can choose whether to receive applications online; however, an alternative paper-based application system should be available for those who cannot access one online.

Pupils are only eligible to receive FSM when a claim has been made on their behalf and their eligibility has been verified by their school or the LA.

During the rollout of Universal Credit, protection arrangements mean that no further eligibility checks will be required.


Transitional protections


For pupils who might otherwise have lost FSM under the amended criteria, transitional protections will be implemented from 1 April 2018 as follows:

  • Pupils who received FSM immediately prior to 1 April 2018 will continue to receive them while Universal Credit is rolled out – this will apply regardless of whether they meet the criteria during that time.
  • Pupils who gain eligibility for FSM after 1 April 2018 will continue to receive them during the rollout period – this will apply regardless of whether they meet the criteria at a subsequent point during the rollout period.

Once Universal Credit is fully rolled out (expected in March 2022), any existing claimants that no longer meet the eligibility criteria (due to a change of circumstances) will continue to receive FSM until the end of their current phase of education.

For pupils in maintained nursery provision, end of phase will be defined as the end of the primary phase. For pupils in middle school, end of phase will be determined by the predominant age range of the school; e.g. for the purposes of transitional protections, middle schools that have a predominantly secondary age range should be treated as secondary schools.

Those who apply for FSM on or after 1 April 2018, who are in receipt of Universal Credit and earning above the threshold, will not be eligible.

Protection for younger siblings


Younger children will not become entitled to FSM because their older sibling is in receipt of transitional protections; a younger child must be eligible for FSM at the time the application is made.




State-funded schools in England are legally required to provide free lunches to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 who are not otherwise entitled to benefits-related FSM.

To provide these meals, funding is given to maintained schools, academies, free schools and alternative provision settings, including PRUs – schools will continue to receive £2.30 per meal.

If your school has a responsibility to comply with the school food standards then your UIFSM must also comply.

More advice on providing UIFSM and accommodating dietary needs can be found using the online UIFSM toolkit.

The DfE has provided further guidance on infant free meals here.


16-18 year olds


Under the Education Act 1996, FE funded institutions are required to provide free meals to disadvantaged students. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in FE provision funded via ESFA such as sixth-form colleges or 16 to 19 only academies and free schools. 

The eligibility criteria is similar to that on slide three; however, students in receipt of Universal Credit will only be eligible during the initial roll out of the benefit.

FE institutions are responsible for assessing applications for FSM; an application must be submitted by the student or their parent when they are enrolled. The student, or parent, must be asked to provide evidence of the award of the qualifying benefits, such as an award notice or letter from HMRC. 

Funding allocations will be paid in two parts: two thirds were paid in September 2017, and the remaining third will be paid in April 2018.

If an institution with 2017/2018 free meals allocation does not have eligible students in the 2017/2018 academic year, they should contact the DfE to return their allocation. The DfE has provided further guidance on free meals in FE here.


Funding for schools


For the 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 academic years, a school-level meal cost grant will be introduced to compensate for the increase in the amount of pupils eligible for FSM; the allocations will be determined as presented in the table on slide nine.

Schools can expect to receive their funding allocation in February 2019 – it will not affect a school’s allocation through pupil premium, national funding formulae, or other existing sources of funding.


Data sharing


During the rollout for Universal Credit, protection arrangements mean that no further eligibility checks will be required – schools should continue to record pupils who are claiming FSM as eligible, as they do currently.

In 2018, schools should have access to the Key to Success download, which will assist them in identifying those pupils claiming FSM and those receiving protection.


Measuring school performance


Due to the updated eligibility criteria and introduction of transitional protection arrangements, the breakdowns of headline accountability measures by disadvantage will not be directly comparable from year to year, or between schools, because the nature of the group of pupils receiving FSM will change.

The differences are likely to be minor for most schools, and the DfE is considering how best to present disadvantage data from 2018 onwards.

Those who work with schools, such as Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and Ofsted, will be issued clear communications before schools get their first set of school-level data in the September data checking exercise, so that schools are not unfairly penalised in these circumstances.


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