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.
Some young children qualify for free school meals automatically
If you have a child in a state-funded primary school in England, Scotland or Wales, you may not need to apply for free school meals. They are given automatically to some children, either due to their age or where they live:
- England (excluding London): All state school children from reception to year two (roughly aged 4 to 7) automatically qualify for universal infant free school meals.
- London: From September 2023, all primary school children up to the age of 11 at state-funded schools in the capital will qualify for free school meals in the 2023/24 academic year.
- Scotland: All state school children from primary one to primary five (roughly aged 4 to 9) automatically get free school meals.
- Wales: All state school children in reception (aged 4 to 5) currently receive free school meals automatically. In addition, some Welsh councils are now offering automatic free school meals to children up to age 11, ahead of the Welsh Government's commitment to providing free school meals to all primary school children in Welsh state schools by September 2024. Contact your local council for more info.
- 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.
Important. Manually applying for free school meals may mean your child's school gets extra funding.
Even if your child's due to get free school meals automatically, if you live in England or Wales and are on a low income, it's worth checking if you meet the criteria below. If so, applying for free school meals manually should result in additional funding for your child's school, thanks to something called the Pupil Premium (or Pupil Development Grant in Wales).
For other children, you have to apply to get free school meals
If your child doesn't get free infant school meals automatically, you can apply for benefits-based free school meals. You can do this for both primary and secondary school children – even 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:
- 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)
- Working Tax Credit run-on (only in England and Wales) – this is paid for four weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit.
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, Tax Credits or have 'no recourse to public funds', 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, or you have 'no recourse to public funds' 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're:
- On 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.
- On Child Tax Credit, you will still receive free school meals on earnings up to £16,190/year, provided you're not also entitled to Working Tax Credit.
- Classed as having no recourse to public funds, your household income will need to be less than the following thresholds:
- £22,700 - if you have one child, and live outside London
- £26,300 - if you have more than one child, and live outside London
- £31,200 - if you live in London, and have one child
- £34,800 - if you live in London, and have more than one child
You'll need to provide proof of both your income & your immigration status to your child's school.
- Universal Credit, you can qualify for free school meals if your earned income is no more than £726/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 £18,725/year.
- Working Tax Credit AND Child Tax Credit, you will still receive free school meals on earnings up to £8,717/year.
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 of the UK during the school holidays (scroll down for specific information on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
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 Christmas 2023'
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.
Karen wrote in to let us know the difference the HAF programme has made for her granddaughter:
Just wanted to say a great big thank you to everyone at Money Saving Expert for highlighting the Holiday Activity and Food Programme. After reading about HAF in your newsletter I discovered my granddaughter is eligible for the scheme as I'm a kinship carer.
She's now enjoying three days a week at a summer holiday club - she's entitled to up to 16 full days including a meal and it was so easy to organise. Without HAF she wouldn't be able to attend as the normal cost is £20 per day for this club. You really have made a huge difference at a time which has been incredibly difficult. Thank you.
Some councils give out vouchers too
Depending on where you live, you may also be able to get £15 a week in food vouchers over the school holidays if your child is eligible for free school meals.
It's up to each council to decide whether to offer support, as it comes out of the 'Household Support Fund' - which is a lump sum councils are given to tackle cost of living problems in their area - so it's a postcode lottery.
Check in with your local council about whether and how you can expect to receive your vouchers. In some cases it'll be automatic, but in others you'll need to apply - so DON'T risk not checking.
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.
In Scotland, you can get help towards food costs over the holidays. The Holiday meals scheme applies to infants in state schools, as well as older children claiming free school meals.
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.
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