"Ultimately, it is a political choice whether a government prioritises free school meals or breakfast clubs. The academic benefits are pretty even between both schemes, however the studies demonstrated that breakfast clubs have more wider benefits which will affect more children."
With the school holidays just starting, many children will be look forward to six weeks away from school. But one key part of the school day for many kids is their Free School Meal (FSM). Given the current rollout of Universal Credit (UC), the Young Fabians spent an evening discussing the effect UC has had on FSM with the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). It forms part of the series “The Welfare State We’re In”.
Since 1947, school lunches have been free for disadvantaged pupils, with 15% of children currently eligible. 2014 saw the introduction of universal FSM for all infants.
In April 2018, the eligibility criteria for children receiving FSM changed. The IFS explained that under the old system every child up to Year 2 was entitled to a FSM. Beyond that, it was means tested for parents who receive out of work benefits and Child Tax Credit. The replacement system sees families who earn less than £7,400 and receive UC as being able to claim. The change is transitional so those children who currently get Free School Meals will not lose out. But this creates a “cliff edge” as kids whose parents earn £7,401 will not be entitled.
The previous system was based on how many hours parents worked, the new system sees a switch to their earnings. So, what does this mean for the numbers? Campaigners believe it could mean many children lose out on what is a vital part of their school day.
However, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The IFS told us while 160,000 children are expected to lose out, another 210,000 will now be entitled to school dinners. But when you drill down into this, many non-working families will lose out along with those working a low amount of hours. Those who gain will be those who work more hours.
Some questions came out of this. Firstly, how can the cliff edge be avoided? How will the £7,400 change over time? And the more general question of whether FSM should be linked to income at all?
We then learned about the benefits which universal FSM can have. Studies carried out in disadvantaged areas show the take up rose from 60% to 90% and academic attainment was boosted by the equivalent of 1-2 months studying. However, the study didn’t see any change in pupil absences, behaviour or health. Indeed, pupils ate different foods, but there was little change over the course of a day, with the exception of crisps which children ate less of (Sorry Gary Lineker!).
The IFS then turned their attention to another form of programme which can help, Breakfast Clubs. In March the Government announced a £26m fund for breakfast clubs. This comes as an alarming number of teacher report that their children come to school hungry on a morning. The London Assembly reported in 2013 that 95% of London teachers said some of their pupils regularly go without breakfast.
An IFS study from 2014/15 showed breakfast clubs boosted attainment by 2 months at Year 2, with smaller benefits at Year 6. However, the difference with breakfast clubs is that it also produces large benefits in the classroom. Children’s concentration and behaviour improved significantly and authorised absences fell as pupils have less health issues. Despite this the study showed breakfast clubs had little effect on pupil hunger or eating healthy foods.
Ultimately, it is a political choice whether a government prioritises free school meals or breakfast clubs. The academic benefits are pretty even between both schemes, however the studies demonstrated that breakfast clubs have more wider benefits which will affect more children.
It was great to have the IFS come and share their thoughts with us. I feel like I learned a lot about the current programmes and the effects that Universal Credit has on them.
‘The Welfare State We’re In’ series is being organised by YF exec member Deeba Syed, thus far it has examined how housing benefits impacting on homelessness with Shelter UK and also with the Trussell Trust looking into Universal Credit and the rise of Food Banks.
James Potts is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesPotts