Brilliant Club

A record 24% of school students are eligible for Free School Meals. What does this mean for widening access to UK universities?

04 Aug 2023
2.3 million students are now eligible for meals on the basis of family income. The Brilliant Club reflects on what this means for university access.

Author: Dr Charlotte Hallahan (Senior Policy and Communications Officer)

Last year, our CEO Anne-Marie Canning highlighted that increasing number of school students are going hungry on university visits. In the article, Anne-Marie argued that despite stretched budgets in widening participation departments, the university sector must prioritise the well-being of school-age students that visit their campuses. No child should go hungry while they are exploring an exciting prospect for their future. But as we sink deeper into the cost-of-living crisis, this is not only an issue on trips outside of school. Now more children than ever before are living below the poverty line and experiencing food insecurity at home and school, which is affecting their education and perhaps their future outcomes.

In June, the Department for Education published a new, and incredibly stark, set of statistics on student characteristics in England. The data shows that as of January 2023, 2,019,509 pupils, which is 23.8 per cent of the entire school population, are now eligible for free lunches because of their family income. This is up 6 per cent on last January, and 40 per cent higher than in January 2020. It is almost a quarter of students in our schools.

These statistics are worrying – even more so when we consider that many children who are living on the poverty line are not eligible for free school meals in the first place. The Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that seven in ten school children on universal credit are not eligible for free school meals because their family’s post-tax earnings are more than £7,400 a year—the threshold for eligibility. So, while this data is troubling as it is, it perhaps does not present a full impression of the scale of hunger and deprivation in English schools.

Regardless, these statistics tell a grim story about food insecurity and inequality in the education sector. We know that access to proper nutrition is crucial for a child’s physical and cognitive development, allowing them to concentrate in the classroom, to participate in discussions, and providing them with the energy to pursue their ambitions.

A parent perspective

Rahiela Koser, our Community Organiser for Oldham Parent Power, spoke about how families in her community are experiencing food insecurity more keenly during the cost-of-living crisis: “Food banks are being used more than they ever have been, as families are choosing between food and fuel”, she shared. As well as this, “parents are struggling to balance the pressures of earning an income that allows them to cover the cost-of-living with being present for their children and cook wholesome healthy meals for the family to enjoy together. In many families including my own, parents are having to work two jobs to make ends meet and at least one parent is often absent at mealtimes, affecting the quality of life of the family.”

Rahiela shared how Oldham Parent Power is working to address food insecurity: “We try our very best to create a warm and family-oriented atmosphere in all our meetings and trips that we organise. We always provide food and refreshments from the offset of the meetings and actively encourage the whole family to attend”. By tackling barriers to involvement in their local areas, such as poverty and hunger, our Parent Power community organisers are building strong parent and carer communities who have the energy to make change in their children’s future.

What does rising poverty mean for widening access?

Food insecurity on this scale might also have long-term effects in the education sector. On average, pupils eligible for free school meals have lower GCSE attainment than pupils that are not eligible. In 2022, for example, 47% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a standard pass in both English and Maths GCSE compared to 75% of pupils not eligible. This was an attainment gap of around 28%. The Office for National Statistics also tells us that being eligible for free school meals has a long-term impact on a student’s employment and economic outcomes. At age 25, for example, 23% of free school meal recipients had recorded earnings above the Living Wage and 42% had earnings below the Living Wage. Almost a third (29.2%) of free school meal recipients had no recorded earnings. In comparison, 43.5% of non-recipients of free school meals had earnings above the Living Wage, while 36.6% had earnings below it.

These are not merely statistics about hunger: a family eligible for free school meals might also be experiencing other difficulties in the home. Families who have a low income, for example, may struggle to afford heat and electricity, as well as school essentials like uniforms and stationery. Indeed, the annual UK poverty report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that ‘many of the poorest families are living on a knife-edge, unable to afford any unexpected expense’, as well as living in arrears and uncertainty about their housing. If the number of families experiencing these problems have risen 40% since 2020, how can we ensure that rising poverty does not have a knock-on effect on educational outcomes? With UCAS now forecasting a million applicants applying for university by 2030 and a record number of free school meals students in the system, as a sector we need to ask ourselves what we can collectively do to make sure that the access gap between the least and the most advantaged doesn’t get wider still in the face of increased competition for spaces.

This is a question for widening access departments and charities as much as it is for schools. On our Scholars Programme, we work with students less likely to be represented at competitive universities, including students who have been eligible for free school meals. We work with around 14,300 students a year, and we know our programme has a proven impact on progression to university. We found that Year 12 students who complete The Scholars Programme, including those eligible for Pupil Premium, are significantly more likely to apply and progress to a competitive university than students from similar backgrounds. But the increase of students on free school meals may indeed impact how students experience The Scholars Programme, as well as their educational journey beyond it.

Ultimately, we want to make sure the students that we work with get as much as they can out of our programmes—to feel safe and full enough to be excited when visiting universities for the first time and to be able to concentrate when they are writing their final assignment. We want students to have the capacity to think about whether they want to go to university, and not just where their next meal is coming from. We also think it is vital that the attainment and access gaps that exist between the most and least advantaged students are narrowed, especially considering the statistics that suggest that they might worsen. Both the government and the widening participation sector must work to ensure that the burden of poverty and food insecurity does not impact the important experiences or programmes less advantaged students might enrol on, that it does not temper their ambitions, and, most importantly, that it does not hinder their chances when it comes to educational success.