Free School Meals

The free school meals (FSM) variable is a binary indicator of whether a pupil's family have claimed eligibility for free school meals. It is the sole indicator of the economic circumstances of the pupil's family that is collected by schools as part of the School Census. Pupils are recorded as eligible only if a claim for free school meals has been made by them or on their behalf by parents and either (a) the relevant authority has confirmed their eligibility and a free school meal is currently being offered to them, or (b) the school or the LA have seen the necessary documentation (for example, an Income Support order book) that supports their eligibility, and the administration of the free meal is to follow as a matter of process. The DfE maintain an Eligibility Checking Service (ECS), which the LA can now reference to determine if a parent applying for FSM is eligible (using name, date of birth and national insurance number).

Parents are able to claim free school meals if they receive a qualifying benefit (Directgov, 2011). The list of qualifying benefits has changed over time, but it is currently:
  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The Guarantee element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit, provided they are not entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual income (as assessed by HM Revenue & Customs) that does not exceed £16,190 (figure accurate as of April 10th)
  • Working Tax Credit 'run-on' - the payment someone may receive for a further four weeks after they stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit

Data collection

Information on numbers of pupils taking free school meals is collected termy as part of the School census. The School Census gathers information in relation to the number of children taking free school meals. The information provided in the January (Spring) school census is used by the DfE to determine the levels of deprivation which attracts further funding for the school. For the first time in 2011, the FSM information in the Spring 2011 census collection was used to allocate an additional premium to schools for each pupil eligible for FSM.

Validity of measure

Data collected through the School Meals census are used by policy branches within the Department for Education and by other users across the education service, most notably by the Education and Library Boards (ELBs). The data are also used to inform a number of Assembly questions. FSM is a widely used proxy indicator for deprivation in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. However, many researchers state that FSM is not a fully robust indicator for deprivation, highlighting concerns around its validity as a proxy measure in this regard. There are a range of issues highlighted by them; these include:
  • Reflects registered rather than actual eligibility: Eligible parents may choose not to apply for free school meals for their children, perhaps due to a perceived stigma, particular dietary requirements or the extent to which schools encourage parents to seek entitlement;
  • Analysis by Hobbs and Vignoles (2009) shows FSM pupils are not the same set of children with the lowest household incomes. Only somewhere between a quarter and a half of the 16 percent of children who are eligible for FSM are in the bottom 16 percent of the distribution of household income. How can it be that so many of our very poorest families find themselves unable to claim FSM status? Well, the very act of giving a particular set of families means-tested benefits pushes our FSM children up the income distribution, ahead of other families who are unable to claim additional income but are still very poor indeed.
  • Measures income only: FSM does not take account of other factors relating to deprivation;
  • Changing criteria for FSM and changing eligibility of individual children: changing criteria results in difficulties in comparing data over long periods of time; in addition, individual children’s eligibility may change over time, meaning that their educational disadvantage is no longer recognised when their eligibility ceases; and
  • Families close to the eligibility threshold may experience similar disadvantage: children from families whose income is just above the threshold for FSM are not included when it is used as a proxy for deprivation, although they are likely to experience similar levels of deprivation to those who are entitled.

(Mention universal free school meals pilot)

Cleaning the variable

Data from each school is subjected to a set of validation checks, including basic arithmetic check, comparison with previous years return and with latest school enrolment and free school meal entitlement figures.

Description of values across cohorts

By age groups
Over time
Stability within pupil

From a random sample of the 2008 NPD the following could be ascertained.

Of those eligible for FSM in 2007, 78% were also eligible in 2008
Of those not eligible for FSM in 2007, 96% were not eligible in 2008 either

Of the whole cohort, 3% were "upwardly mobile" in FSM eligibility terms; 4% were "downwardly mobile".


DirectGov (2011) Nutrition and school lunches, (accessed 06/04/11).
Hobbs, G. and Vignoles, A. (2010) Is children’s free school meal ‘eligibility’ a good proxy for family income? British Educational Research Journal, 36(4) 673-690.