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Guidance for local authorities and schools on eligibility criteria for free school meals.

First published:
5 March 2024
Last updated:


Free school meals are available to eligible learners in maintained schools in Wales. 

The local authority where a learner goes to school (not where they live):

  • provides the free school meal and
  • assesses the eligibility

Universal primary free school meals are currently being rolled out across Wales. We are working with local authorities to meet the commitment for all primary school pupils to receive free school meals by September 2024. 

This guidance therefore refers to those learners who are eligible for a free school meal through the benefit related criteria.

For the purposes of this guidance a ‘parent’ is any person who has care of the child, including foster parents. The child does not have to be living with the parent or carer who qualifies for free school meals. 


Free school meals are available to eligible learners who attend school full-time. This includes: 

  • younger children who attend nursery provided by a school for full days 
  • sixth form school pupils

A pupil may be able to get free school meals if their parent receives one or more of the following:

  • Income Support 
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance 
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance 
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 
  • Guaranteed element of Pension Credit 
  • Child Tax Credit (as long as parents do not also get Working Tax Credit and their annual income is £16,190 or less before tax)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on (paid for 4 weeks after parents stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit) 
  • Universal Credit (as long as the annual net earned household income is less than £7,400, not including benefits)

Learners who receive any of these benefits in their own right (not through a parent) can also get free school meals. 

Children whose parents or carers are not entitled to public funds  

We encourage local authorities to use their discretion to provide free school meals to any child who is not automatically entitled due to their parents’ immigration status. Local authorities can decide not to use their legal power to charge for school meals for children from families affected by 'No recourse to public funds' (NRPF).

Working Tax Credits

Parents who receive Working Tax Credit are not entitled to free school meals. 

However, parents receiving 'Working Tax Credit run-on' would be entitled to free school meals if they meet the remaining eligibility criteria. 'Working Tax credit run on' is paid for 4 weeks after a claimant stops qualifying for Working Tax Credit.

Learners at a private school

Local authorities do not have to provide free school meals to learners at a private or independent school. 

However, where the local authority places pupils at an independent school to meet their needs under a statement or Individual Development Plan (IDP) there are provisions in both:

in relation to the provision and funding of board and lodging by the local authority. 

If a learner’s needs cannot be met within a maintained school, we would not expect them to be worse off if they are placed within an independent school.

If a learner has a scholarship or bursary, parents should check whether this funding includes an allocation for free school meals. 

Applying for free school meals

Local authority websites should have an online application form and guidance for parents. Schools should also familiarise themselves with this information. 

Transitional protection

The entitlement to protection under the transitory provisions contained in the Transitional Protection Order ended on either:

  • 31 December 2023 or
  • the end of the eligible pupil’s current phase of education (primary or secondary) on that date if later

It is important to note that whilst the policy has ended there should have been no immediate loss of protections from 1 January 2024.

Learners should continue to get free school meals until the end of their school phase if either of the following applies:

This applies even if their circumstances change, and they no longer meet the eligibility criteria. 

Learners who:

  • become newly eligible for free school meals from 1 January 2024, or 
  • continue to meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals as they move into secondary school

will no longer have their free school meal protected if their circumstances change.

More information is available from local authorities.

Recording eligibility for free school meals

The most widely accepted way to identify social deprivation in schools is by using eligibility for free school meals as a proxy. Eligibility status remains our most reliable pupil-level data to understand which of our learners are:

  • most impacted by poverty
  • where support is needed

It is therefore important to record which learners are:

  • eligible for free school meals,
  • transitionally protected 
  • receiving Universal Primary Free School Meals 

Eligibility to free school meals currently has several major practical applications: 

  • finalise funding allocations to local authorities through the Revenue and Support Grant (RSG).
  • determine the level of grant funding that is allocated to the rollout of Universal Primary Free School Meals.
  • calculate and distribute funding allocations for both the Pupil Development Grant (funding for schools) and the School Essentials Grant (funding for families).

Communications resources have been developed to support you in continuing to emphasise the importance and value of families registering for free school meal eligibility.

Changes of family circumstances

Changes in circumstances can affect benefits payments. This could include a change in: 

  • relationship status 
  • childcare costs 
  • working hours 
  • income levels 
  • the child or young person’s circumstances 
  • whether a parent is leaving Great Britain for more than 4 weeks 

Local authorities should encourage parents to inform them if they have a change of circumstances which could affect their entitlement to free school meals. They should also be encouraged to tell the Department for Work and Pensions or their local Job Centre Plus (depending on the benefit).