Free school meals

Free school meals

Does your child qualify? And what help is there during school holidays?

If you're on certain benefits, including universal credit and child tax credit, your child may be able to get free school meals during term time  as well as free support during the school holidays. This guide covers who's eligible, what you'll get, and how to apply. Crucially, you may need to apply for free school meals EVERY YEAR.

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Most of the youngest children in state schools automatically get free school meals

If you have a child in a state-funded infant school in England, Scotland or Wales, you DON'T need to apply for free school meals. Infant free meals are automatically given to many of the youngest school children as follows:

  • England: all state school children from reception to year two (roughly aged 4 to 7)

  • Scotland: all state school children from primary one to primary five (roughly aged 4 to 9)

  • Wales: all state school children in reception (aged 4 to 5)  from September 2022, followed by all children of primary school age by 2024.

  • Northern Ireland: free school meals are not automatically given out to children of any age. But parents claiming certain benefits can apply for free school meals for any children in full-time education (see below).

If you're in a private school, there's no help – unless you're on a bursary in which case it's up to the school.

For older children, you have to apply to get free school meals

If your child is too old to get free infant school meals automatically (or if you live in Northern Ireland), you can apply for free school meals. You can do this for both primary and secondary school - and could even get free school meals for your children up to the age of 18, if they attend an eligible education institution - but both of the following need to apply.

1. You must be claiming one of these benefits

Wherever you are in the UK, you (or your child) need to be claiming at least one of the following benefits:

  • Universal credit (you're eligible after you've got your first payment)
  • Child tax credit 
  • The 'guaranteed element' of pension credit
  • Income-based jobseeker's allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Income support
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • Working tax credit (only in Scotland and Northern Ireland) 

Not claiming any of the above but think you might be eligible? Check using our 10-minute benefit calculator.

2. If you're on universal credit or tax credits, you'll also need to have a low (or no) income to qualify

If you're specifically on one of these two benefits, as opposed to the others listed above, there's a limit on how much income you can earn to qualify for free school meals. If you're on the other benefits, there's no maximum income.

In England and Wales, if you receive:

  • Universal credit, you can qualify for free school meals if your income is no more than £7,400/year (after tax and not including your benefits) in total for your household.

  • Child tax credit, you will still receive free school meals on earnings up to £16,190/year. There is no limit on working tax credit.

Click below to see the earnings limits for the rest of the UK.

Note: If your child is getting free school meals and your earnings change and mean they're no longer eligible, they'll still be able to get free school meals until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) they’re in on 31 March 2023. 

  • Scotland

    In Scotland, if you receive:
     
    • Universal credit, you can qualify for free school meals if your earned income is no more than £660/month (after tax and not including your benefits) in total for your household.

    • Child tax credit, you will still receive free school meals on earnings up to £17,005/year. 

    • Working tax credit AND child tax credit, you will still receive free school meals on earnings up to £7,920/year.
  • Northern Ireland

    In Northern Ireland, if you receive:

    • Universal credit, you can qualify for free school meals if your earned income is no more than £14,000/year (after tax and not including your benefits) in total for your household.

    • Child tax credit OR working tax credit, you'll still receive free school meals on earnings up to £16,190/year.

How you apply for free school meals

If you meet the criteria above, you can apply for school meals. How you do this varies depending on where you are in the UK but, crucially...

You may need to apply for free school meals EVERY YEAR
 

Do this before the new school year starts in September. Here's how to apply:

  • England: apply to your local council. There's a free government checker, which should link through to your council's free school meals registration page. But we tested this and often we were only sent to the council's main homepage – if this happens, search 'free school meals' in your council's search bar.

  • Scotland: apply to your local council. A checker tool to find your local council, can be found on this Scottish government page.

  • Wales: apply to your local council using the Welsh government's online tool.

  • Northern Ireland: apply directly to the Northern Irish government using its online form.

Child on free school meals? You may be able to get free extra help over the holidays

Getting free school meals during term time means you also qualify for free extra help during the school holidays. How this works and what you get depends on where you live in the UK, but it can include free meals, free activities and even free cash to help with your childcare costs.

Here, we explain what you can get in each country during the school holidays. 

If you're in England, you may be able to apply for council-run holiday and food clubs

If you're eligible for benefits-related free school meals (even if your child is too young to get them), they're also able to take part in the Holiday Activity and Food Programme (HAF) that takes place over the Summer, Easter, and Christmas holidays. 

The HAF programme is designed to give children aged 4+ access to enriching activities, and at least one free meal a day. The actual content of the programme will vary council by council but you should be able to choose from a range of activities. 

As a minimum, each local authority must provide the equivalent of six weeks' of support per year to all eligible children, but many councils offer more. This is split over each of the long school holidays. So, if you apply, you'll be able to get AT LEAST: 

  • Four days help over Easter. 
  • Four weeks help over summer (or three if your child's holiday is shorter than six weeks).
  • Four days help over Christmas.

Access to HAF isn't automatic, you MUST APPLY each holiday. 

The way you do this varies by council. Some give your child a code at school which you can use to book activities with providers (this might be called a HAF code, or a Unique Booking Reference). Others have walk-in sessions, online booking portals, or small grants that you can use to pay providers for sessions.

Check how you'll need to apply by contacting your local council. You can find yours (and their website) using the government's 'Find your council' tool. Or, you can search online for the name of your area, along with 'Holiday Food and Activities Programme Summer 2022'

Some councils have application deadlines, or limited spaces on some of the more popular activities programmes, so apply asap to make sure you don't miss out.

Wales: money or vouchers towards your food costs

To support parents with the extra cost of food over the summer holidays, Welsh councils give out vouchers, grants, or packed lunches to those eligible for free school meals. 

The support will vary from area to area, so it's best to check in with your local council about how you can expect to receive it. In some cases it'll be automatic, but in others you'll need to apply  so DON'T risk not checking. 

If you're not sure which local authority you fall into, type your postcode into the government's free local authority finder

Scotland: free meals, and additional financial help

In Scotland, there are two ways you can get help towards food costs over the holidays. Both apply to infants in state schools, as well as older children claiming free school meals:

  • Holiday meals scheme. Over the school holidays in Scotland, councils offer access to free meals to all those eligible for free school meals during term time. How you get the meals will depend on where in Scotland you live, but usually you'll be given vouchers, or food parcels. You can apply as soon as you qualify for free school meals (even if this happens during school holidays.) Contact your local council to find out how to apply
  • Child Payment Bridging Payment. This is a cash payment to all those who claim free school meals. In 2022, the Scottish government are giving out four equal payments of £130 at Easter, Summer, October, and Christmas. The payments are timed for the start of the school holidays (plus October  half-term), and should come automatically  so you don't need to apply. 

Northern Ireland: summer holiday food grant

To help parents cover the extra cost of food during the summer holidays, the Department for Education in Northern Ireland provides those eligible for free school meals with a free grant.

Between 1 July and 31 August, you'll get £13.50 per week for each of your children that qualifies for free school meals. If the Education Authority have your bank account details, the money will be paid directly into that account automatically. Otherwise you'll get sent a cheque in the post.

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