Why expanding Free School Meals is achievable

Poverty Photo of healthy food
ViewsMay 13th, 2021

Steffan Evans provides a summary of two new reports published by the Bevan Foundation exploring the practical barriers to expanding eligibility for Free School Meals

The pandemic has raised the profile of Free School Meals (FSM) as a political issue as never before. Members of the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition have been working on the issue for a number of years. The arguments in favour of reform are long established. Too many children who are trapped in poverty are denied access to FSM due to arbitrary eligibility criteria. This means that children miss out on the health and educational benefits of a healthy meal, whilst already struggling families are placed under significant financial pressure.

There is a broad cross-party consensus that the current FSM system needs reform. Welsh Labour’s manifesto contained a pledge to review the current FSM system. There have been some concerns, however, about some of the practical barriers to implementation in recent months. That is why the Bevan Foundation has, this week, published two new reports exploring these barriers further, and considering potential solutions.

What work have we undertaken?

The first report was an independent report undertaken by Policy in Practice on behalf of the Bevan Foundation and the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition. The report assesses the financial cost to the Welsh Government of extending access to FSM and the savings for eligible households. The second was a briefing paper developed by the Bevan Foundation exploring the practical barriers to implementation and some possible solutions. The key findings to both reports are set out below.

Expanding FSM to all children

There are barriers to expanding eligibility to FSM so that all children in Wales are eligible on a universal basis in the immediate future. These barriers can be overcome but with the possible need to enact primary legislation and the need for greater investment in school catering facilities, any such expansion is likely to need to be rolled out over time. The ongoing revenue costs associated with such a change, however, are manageable within the context of the Welsh Government’s budget (an estimated additional £140.7m annually) and the potential benefits significant.

Expanding FSM to all children whose families receive Universal Credit

Expanding FSM to all children whose families receive Universal Credit could be achieved for the start of the school year in September 2022 at the very latest. The cost of expanded provision is small. It is estimated that the cost of expanding provision would be an additional £10.5m annually. To put this in context this is less than 0.06% of the Welsh Government’s total budget. Many of the practical barriers are easily surmountable, with local authorities already having to cater for thousands of extra children due to more children becoming eligible as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Such a change would not only help children but would provide enormous benefits to families across Wales. It is estimated that providing FSM to all children whose family receives Universal Credit would potentially put an extra £16.9 million to £18.4 million back into the pockets of Welsh families. This means that the financial benefits to families would significantly outstrip the cost to the Welsh Government

The overwhelming case for reform

The Welsh Government has shown that it is willing to lead on food in school over recent years. Wales became the first nation in the UK to enable local authorities to pay cash in lieu of FSM during the pandemic, whilst the commitment to continue to provide support over the holidays until spring 2022 will ease the pressures faced by thousands of families.

The evidence gathered by our latest research however, demonstrates that it is possible for the Welsh Government to go further. Whilst further consultation is needed with local authorities and schools to maximise the benefits of any reforms, we believe that it would be possible for the Welsh Government to expand FSM to all children whose families are eligible for Universal Credit without the need for a formal review.

This week, to coincide with the report launches, members of the Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition have signed an open letter calling for the next Welsh Government to make expanding provision for FSM a priority. If the Welsh Government decided to do so, we believe it could improve the lives of thousands of families across the nation.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation

Leave a Reply


Search and filter the archive using any of the following fields:

  • Choose Type:

  • Choose Focus:

  • Choose Tag: