Support for children entitled to free school meals House of Commons, 26 May 2021

Councils work hard to support children with a range of vulnerabilities, including those who are eligible for free school meals


Key messages

  • Councils work hard to support children with a range of vulnerabilities, including those who are eligible for free school meals (FSM).
  • The FSM system is an important component of the support that is provided to low-income families and we support the universal provision at key-stage one.  
  • Other support has been provided in local areas for children entitled to FSM, as well as other people struggling to afford food and other essentials during the pandemic.
  • Support has included £63 million from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and money provided to councils under the COVID Winter Grant Scheme. We were pleased to see that the Government recognised the outstanding work of councils and acknowledged that local authorities were best placed to provide and oversee this funding.
  • The extension of the Winter Grant scheme until June 2021 (renamed the Coronavirus Grant Scheme) will help councils to continue to provide much-needed support to low income households at risk of poverty and financial hardship. Councils will, for example, have been able to provide further targeted support to families entitled to free school meals during the May holiday period.
  • The Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme is already supporting children entitled to free school meals by providing food support in a way that also promotes wider health and wellbeing outcomes. However, the scheme is unlikely to see all eligible children participate and will not be suitable for everyone.
  • We support the expansion of Healthy Start vouchers, but more needs to be done to promote their availability. Take up has been low in the past and we recognise that more can be done locally to ensure parents are aware of the programme.
  • To ensure councils can continue to best address the underlying drivers of disadvantage and break cycles of poverty in the longer term, it is vital that support including for FSMs; the coronavirus grant scheme and HAF are integrated with wider approaches to addressing health inequalities and financial vulnerability.
  • Councils want to do more planned preventative work to address underlying causes of disadvantage and provide support to all households who need it and need long-term sustainable funding for this, including a restoration of Local Welfare Funding - to at least £250 million per annum - to enable a more locally led and preventative approach to addressing financial hardship.

Further information

The Free School Meals (FSM) system is an important component of the support that is provided to low-income families and we support the universal provision at key-stage one. Quality provision is an important component of broader work to address health inequalities and support children’s learning. We would welcome further discussion of how FSM can be integrated as effectively as possible with wider approaches to supporting low income households, reducing health inequalities and improving social mobility. 

We are open to exploring the need for expanding access to FSM, but need to ensure it is affordable to Government and is reaching the right families. We do not agree that extending access to all families on Universal Credit is the right way to do this as we recognise it would be very expensive and may not target families as effectively as the means-test that is replacing the passporting from legacy benefits. A review of the means-test would therefore be welcome.

Winter Grant Scheme and the Coronavirus Grant Scheme

We were pleased that the Government recognised the outstanding work of councils to support children and families during the pandemic and acknowledged that local authorities were best placed to provide and oversee the COVID Winter Grant Scheme. The grant allowed councils to use the funding to help families and individuals most in need in their local community and was implemented extremely quickly, with an extremely short timescale for expenditure. The LGA and councils appreciated the efforts of the Department for Work and Pensions to engage effectively with the sector.

The extension of the funding, which was renamed the Coronavirus Grant Scheme, has helped councils to continue to provide much-needed support to low income households at risk of poverty and financial hardship as the Government continues its gradual easing of the coronavirus measures. Councils will, for example, have been able to provide further targeted support to families entitled to free school meals during the May holiday period.

However, to ensure councils are able to best address the underlying drivers of disadvantage and break cycles of poverty in the longer term, they need long-term sustainable funding to do more planned preventative work to address underlying causes of disadvantage and provide support to all households who need it. This should include the restoration of Local Welfare Funding - to at least £250 million per annum - to enable a more locally-led and preventative approach to addressing financial hardship.

Holiday Activity Food Programme

The LGA supports the “end holiday hunger” initiative and the Holiday Activity and Food programme (HAF) is already starting to support this by providing food support in a context that also promotes wider health and wellbeing outcomes.

However, the scheme is unlikely to see all eligible children participate and will not be suitable for everyone. It is therefore vital that the HAF is integrated with wider approaches to addressing health inequalities and financial vulnerability. With many households likely to be economically vulnerable for some time, we believe the best way to support families long-term is with sustainable local welfare funding.