If schools close, what happens to children who need free school meals?

Here’s some collated questions, views and ideas from teachers, and eduTwitter and my thoughts on what could be done by government and schools. What is missing? What else is possible?

[Last edit: March 31, 11am, working document*, input welcome].

*Today’s guidance states a new policy position

Our school is open over the Easter holidays and our food supplier is able to continue to provide meals for children eligible for free school meals who are not in school. Is that allowed?

“Whilst the vouchers are for term time only, if there is a local arrangement to supply food that the school and the supplier intend to continue over this period then that can be agreed and managed locally. This would need to be manageable within schools’ existing resources, as there will not be additional funding available for this purpose.

This is unacceptable. At our tiny rural primary school parents have donated hundreds of pounds of personal money in the last month to feed local families’ children alone and support school with its extra costs, this is unsustainable as many themselves are now out of work or at reduced pay. — Ministers do not appear to understand the gravity of the situation.

Not scrapping FSM eligibility criteria (as set out in 10 Actions for Government to take now, below) and allowing schools to order the vouchers they need for families, rather than only allowing schools to get vouchers to those children that meet eligibility test criteria, will mean children are starving and schools already starved of funds, will feed them because they must through volunteer support where they can, but have to do so at their own expense.

This is wrong and must be fixed. The virus and its economic effects on millions of families, do not respect a two- week school holiday. Children in families with no recourse to public funds have nothing, and now have no work — or will have to go out to work to feed their children but jeopardise their own, their families, and our community public health because the system puts them in an impossible position.

The well documented 5-week delays in Universal Credit applications, which are on a steep incline, will mean children have nothing for 5 weeks although their poverty is clear, while the eligibility ’criteria’ is met in the system.

Government must scrap eligibility tests and criteria and fund schools for every FSM they provide to any child in need, at any time.

Previous question asked:
How will the DfE know how much money a school needs in order to meet growing demand for FSM without knowing how many children at each school need FSM?

Suggested answer:
They won’t. There will be an inevitable lag. The DfE must offer schools funding as demand grows, and allow them to plan securely. Schools must be able to offer families a way to indicate need, and be able to meet it, even if not ‘eligible’ for for FSM.


(1) The number of children in need of an FSM will grow over the next few weeks and months.
(2) The school census is the mechanism for telling the DfE a count of how many children are FSM eligible,  and it does not get taken next until May 21st.
(3) The January 2021 school census is the next mechanism for telling the DfE a count of how many children are FSM eligible, and taken as the basis for the count of pupil premium school funding.

Public Health England has updated its guidance for schools today. As school closures at scale may look increasingly more likely, many in civil society have called on the Government to  offer cash measures to ensure that children do not go hungry.

Health and education are both devolved issues. Who takes leadership here? It is also a question of interaction with DWP.

About 1.5 million children across the UK are currently eligible for free school meals in families living on a very low income. The precarious nature of many parents’ employment in the gig economy and service industry, will push that number higher due to the economic and health effects of the virus. Children must not experience barriers to access food and support.

Child Poverty Action Group is calling on the government to match the support it is providing to small business and boost the income of struggling families with children by increasing child benefit by £10 per week for the duration of the pandemic response, for example. This is in addition to and not instead of the actions needed on FSM. This should be step zero for the government to action.

Now is not a time for eligibility tests, conditionality or exclusion about feeding children.

    • What are the implications for eligibility, of the Budget 2020 changes in welfare criteria and coronavirus support measures?
    • How can children who become newly eligible, find out that  they are and access needed support available to them if out of school> who is responsible for approvals, and communications between families and schools if closed?
    • Many families will now be staying at home for all meals, without access to meals at work, in canteens, or staff discounts. Where supermarket shelves are empty, an increase in the number of people needing fed at home may put an additional strain on families’ supplies and budgets.

We already know,  that while 1.1 million children in English primary and secondary schools were eligible for and claiming free school meals, there were also between 2.2 million and 4.1 million children living in poverty in 2016/17, depending on the measure used. [Source: The Children’s Society.]

Table numbers* are estimated as may be have been taken on different dates and eligibility criteria vary by location.

The Government needs to do everything within its power to mitigate the effects of Coronavirus on children’s nutrition and in a sustainable solution beyond the short term. School staff across Twitter at least, seem to have plenty of ad hoc ideas going on, but there is no public guidance from the Department, at the time of writing. Local areas need empowered to support their own families based on local needs and knowledge.

Some schools are already closing. Some parents are withdrawing children as a precautionary measure. All may need support.

A. Ten things government could do quickly

1. Appoint a dedicated Local Authority central contact for
(a) families and (b) separate for school (telephone and email) — local knowledge needed to answer questions and offer support. (Note challenge D2)

2. Remove eligibility and conditionality requirements to allow all children to access FSM based on need, not current criteria. This change would remove any questions or confusion over ‘do I qualify?’ especially for families newly claiming welfare payments as part of coronavirus support measures. This may see government simply  need to treble FSM allocation, so schools can help their wider community including children not classed as eligible, but in need.

3. Make funding available now and quick to access for:

  • Breakfast club bags
  • All FSM eligible children (2-18), including infants
  • meeting need at aggregated, not individual level.

4. Emergency funding must be made accessible and quick to claim  for those families who are going to slide into poverty and become FSM eligible but may not be able to demonstrate Universal Credit eligibility for example. (Delays in UC must not delay getting FSM to a child). Schools must have discretion based on need.

5. Empower local schools to decide how to distribute this best –– as cash transfers, emergency feeding programmes, vouchers, or otherwise.

6. *Unlink FSM funding, eligibility,  and individual level pupil premium (PP) registration. [This may be a longer term issue that can be ignored for now, if not counted till the January 2021 census.] Clarify any short term, and further implications. There may be interconnected systems and implications for algorithms (at LA level) of PP system registration. Schools will need to know whether they must or must not register pupils as PP status on an individual level, or can simply meet pupils’ FSM needs.

7. Introduce a business rate relief on state schools, as afforded to private schools operating as charities.

8. The intention of any top-down imposed closures and these changes will need to be made very clear, to set staff and families and suppliers’ expectations for the potential time periods involved and allow school staff to plan capacity and funding accordingly as best they can. (Flatten the curve? Slow spread? etc)

9. Scrap the next 21 May 2020 school census day “FSM meals taken” count.

10. Give schools an extra supplies fund with flexibility, including  for unexpected additional hygiene costs and temporary staff.

And don’t forget step zero, in addition to FSM needs. Many families are soon going to be in dire straits as services and shops stop paying staff. Child Poverty Action Group is calling on the government to match the support it is providing to small business and boost the income of struggling families with children by increasing child benefit by £10 per week for the duration of the pandemic response.

B. Things schools could do

1. Appoint a dedicated school FSM questions and support contact for (a) families and (b) for other organisations who may want to refer / reach (telephone and email) with allocated school back up chain, in case of illness — local knowledge needed to answer questions and offer support.

2. ‘Cash transfers direct to individuals or households are the most effective tool in order to aid families to weather the storm (not vouchers for food aid or financial or in kind support for food aid providers including lunch clubs)‘ [Letter to Rishi Sunak MP from civil society, March 12, 2020] (Recommendation from multiple civil society orgs / charities.)

3. Schools stay open on skeleton schedule as meal collection points distributing meals from usual suppliers (cold alternatives) Schools need to best define and decide for themselves what this looks like.

4. For [rural] children on school bus routes who cannot access school, or for individuals with SEND special transport that stops, could the buses continue to run, and deliver meals to bus stop collection points (routes could need re-time tabling and contingent on safe staffing)?

5. Some schools are looking at supermarket vouchers. They will need support to be able to transfer funding from school meal suppliers if so. The least disruptive model will be to keep existing provision from current contracted suppliers. Must have flexibility.

6. Other schools are preparing food packages as a contingency to safeguard children who would not be able to access FSMs in the possible event of any future closure.

7. Contingency planning may be needed where schools plan to provide food, not cash transfers. (a) Self isolation and (b) sickness may prevent or disincentivise families receiving physical food transfers. Schools need to plan if actual food transfers becomes no longer feasible due to (a)  or (b).

8. Recognise that other partner organisations (churches, food banks, local charities, youth groups) may themselves  have reduced capacity and this may change over time. Self isolation and sickness may reduce staffing. Contingency thinking needed.

C. What is missing and questions?

    1.  Contracts between schools and supplier?
      • Force Majeure Termination Rights?
      • Safeguarding supplies: can suppliers get guaranteed / prioritised food deliveries
      • Suppliers have staff to pay etc – will they be paid for services they don’t provide if schools close?
    2. Delivery
      • What contracts are in place with suppliers?
      • Are school bus companies viable for drop off deliveries?
      • Could/should they enable children to get to school if self defeating the aims of social distancing and self isolation, or could school buses deliver meals to bus collection stops?
    3. Can schools stay open for provision
      • Assuming contingency for safe staffing: what sort of numbers of pupils / staff is viable for in-school collection of grab bags?
      • Should schools act like local food banks to support a community?
      • How will children in families that are sick or all in self isolation that cannot access the school, get support?
    4. Children’s FSM Eligibility
      • Are there implications of the Budget 2020 changes in Universal Credit and welfare criteria, for pupil premium calculations and school funding? If “UC eligible” status takes 5 weeks to reach, what does this mean for FSM? The advance payment in the 5 week must be a grant, not a loan.
      • How are newly eligible children brought into the system whilst out of school> who is responsible for the eligibility tests, and communications between families and schools if closed?
      • Destitute families with no recourse to public funds have no welfare safety net to fall back on.  “As a result, there will be an increase in homelessness, hunger and health issues amongst these families.” [Eve Dickson Project 17]
      • This matters to the DfE and the Treasury because if you are *ever* registered as FSM eligible in your period of education, you keep that eligibility for six years (ie across primary, or all of secondary school). Pupil premium is paid accordingly to schools. (Goodness knows our children’s schools need the cash, those I teach don’t even have a text book each). There are many interconnected systems and knock on implications for algorithms often at LA level, of the implications here of PP registration.
    5. The arbitrariness of taking the total number of children who eat a school meal on school census date the next Thursday 21 May 2020, as a measure of need, is likely going to be evidenced at scale. Where ‘free school meals taken’ or ‘school lunches taken’ are affected by unusual events, a day and time when the situation is regarded as normal is to be substituted. “You could use the next normal day, an earlier day in census week or the previous Thursday where that reflects the normal situation. Where other days or times are used, schools must record these for audit purposes.” [DfE school census guidance]
    6. Beyond FSM — and of secondary importance, but nonetheless  of importance for families that will now need to spend money twice in the same time period, intended for children’s lunches. Will regular school meal orders that have been pre-ordered & pre-paid by parents be fulfilled at later date?
    7. Recovery volunteers if people have had/ or not been tested but assume they have had it, can they volunteer for support?

D. Indirect complexities

1. The eligibility test verification process is too slow: ‘A pupil is only eligible to receive a free school meal when a claim for the meal has been made on their behalf, and their eligibility has been verified by the school where they are enrolled or by the local authority.
[DfE Guidance, April 2018]

2. Only half of schools in England are Local Authority schools but communities need a centralised coordination point for questions in addition to known school contacts. This also gives government 152 points of contact not thousands distributed across MATs. (Note more families will need access to FSM who may not be on current identified as FSM lists). There is often no longer any Free School Meals team at the Local Authority / Council to process applications.

All schools in Scotland are still LA based.

3. Pupil Premium: In England, as well as providing a nutritious meal for eligible children, free school meals eligibility is also used to determine funding for schools, local authorities and early years settings through the pupil premium, the national funding formulae, and the early years pupil premium.


E. Challenges of supply

  1. School meal suppliers may not have staff for food preparation or delivery as they self-isolate or are sick.
  2. School meal suppliers may have difficulty getting supplies.
  3. School meals may have to be cold-only. No in-school cooking or heating.
  4. Breakfast clubs may be closed in addition to FSM lunches. Children may need both.
  5. Self isolation and sickness may prevent physical transfers of food or put people off collecting it and leaving self isolation or home.
  6. Any lengthy changes of supplier may put future supply at risk if and when we resume ‘business as usual’.


F. Risks of meal delivery solutions

  1. School collection / distribution may not be accessible:
    1. Children cannot get to school due to age or no school buses / Should not go to school on a bus  which defeats the aims of social distancing.
    2. Families of non-school-bus age children cannot get to school independently.
    3. SEND children may be at particular risk.
  2. Food banks may not be able to meet any additional needs: Food aid providers are largely dependent on often retirement age volunteers and food donations. Their capacity is likely to be severely impacted by the spread of Coronavirus with the likelihood of staff shortages, drops in donations and venue closures. [Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network].
  3. ‘Solely supporting emergency feeding programmes, similar to those that feed children during the school holidays, will not respond adequately to need, and does nothing to address the families who will need to quarantine themselves.’ [Letter to Rishi Sunak MP from civil society, March 12, 2020].
  4. Assuming planning for safe staffing for themselves, for their own care and self-isolating, social distancing on collection.


G. What are the details in numbers?

Number of children in education

The majority of children are in England’s state schools. Limited statistics for independent or private education where state school pupils have state funded places.

There are currently 32,770 schools in the UK.

  • In England, there are 24,323 schools:
    • 3,714 are nurseries or early-learning centres,
    • 20,832 are primary schools,
    • 19 are middle schools and
    • 4,188 are secondary schools.
    • 1,257 special schools
    • and 352 pupil referral units (PRUs), plus
    • there are 2,408 independent schools.
  • There are 1,569 schools in Wales
    • including 9 nursery schools,
    • 1,238 primary schools,
    • 19 middle schools,
    • 187 secondary schools,
    • 41 special schools, plus
    • 75 independent schools .
  • There are 5,046 schools in Scotland, including
    • 2,544 early learning centres,
    • 2,012 primary schools,
    • 357 secondary schools and
    • 133 special schools.
  • There are 1,832 schools in Northern Ireland,
    • 770 nursery schools,
    • 813 primary schools,
    • 196 secondary schools,
    • 39 special schools and
    • 14 independent schools.

Pupil numbers

  • England: There are 8.8 million children in state education (20,832 are primary schools, 4,188 are secondary schools.)
  • Wales: 470,000 pupils in Wales.
  • Scotland: 700,00 pupils. Scottish Authorities.
  • Northern Ireland: 335,000 in Northern Ireland.

Source: BESA, Department for Education; Welsh Government; Scottish Government; Northern Ireland Department of Education (2018/19)

England — Means tested:

  • In England in 2017, around 1.1 million children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal.
  • From April 2018, English school children in Year Three or above and in households receiving Universal Credit are eligible for free school meals if their family earns below £7,400 per year, before benefits are taken into account.

England — Non means tested:

All infant school children are entitled to receive free school meals in England. (UIFSM)

Within the recipients of universal universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) are those families with a legal entitlement to FSM.

Note: the Children’s Society also said in January 2017, that while 1.1 million children in English primary and secondary schools were eligible for and claiming free school meals, there were between 2.2 million and 4.1 million children living in poverty in 2016/17, depending on the measure used. [Source: Full Fact 29th Mar 2018]

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has 174K primary and 145K secondary pupils. 97K get free school meals.


There are 146,200 children of school age (5-18) eligible for FSM. [Oct 2018, FOI]

More than half of primary-aged pupils (53.5 per cent) were registered for free school meals in 2019, up from 16.7 per cent in 2009. Secondary pupils on free school meals now make up 15 per cent, an increase from 12.3 per cent in 2009. [TES, March 2020]

The Scottish government’s policy to extend free school meals for all pupils in the first three years of primary school, started in 2015. P1, P2 and P3 pupils accounted for 169,931 of the 260,842 eligible children in 2019, according to the figures. [TES, March 2020]


Around 75,000 (16%) of children are ‘eligible for and claiming’ free school meals, meaning they have registered a claim for free school meals.  Around 55,000 children who live in poverty in Wales, are not eligible for free school meals. [Children’s Society, 2017]


H. Where else in the world is doing what


Chicago Public Schools, which currently has one school closed, has “established a special hotline and email for those families who need support with meals or have additional questions.” Families can collect meals for up to three days at a time.

Washington State, US: The Northshore district  is offering meals for pick up at 22 school sites. Five production sites are making ‘grab-and-go’ meals.

Seattle Public Schools, in ‘the early epicenter’ of the US outbreak, will “provide sack-lunches prepared by staff in our central kitchen.”

Source: CNN, March 13, The coronavirus pandemic is closing schools. How will kids eat?

G. Media

March 13, Coronavirus: More than a million poor kids could go hungry if COVID-19 shuts schools [link] The Mirror

March 13, Ensure children do not go hungry if schools close, charities urge Government [link] Evening Express (PA)

March 13, Kids will go hungry if schools close due to coronavirus, charities warn [link] Morning Star


General advice on coronavirus for schools

COVID-19: guidance for education settings [updated March 16]:  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19

  • Public Health England has published a poster for schools.
  • The Department for Education has a phone line: 0800 046 8687. Opening hours: 8am to 6pm (Monday to Friday) Email: [email protected]

For other advice, see the NHS website and other government bodies.