PARENTS are being encouraged to register for ‘free school meals’ if ever their income dips below £7,400 – because it will guarantee their claim until 2022.

Under new rules, as part of the roll out of Universal Credit, free school meals will only be available to families in receipt of the benefit and with earnings of less than £7,400 a year.

This is expected to significantly impact on the number of children who could be eligible.

But ‘transitional’ safeguards have been put in place, amid concerns that the new criteria would rule out up to a million children who would otherwise have been eligible.

This means that anyone who has a successful claim for free school meals at any point will remain eligible until 2022 – even if their income rises.

The issue of free school meals – and the impact of Universal Credit – was discussed at a specially convened ‘topic group’ at Hertfordshire County Council last Monday.

Dr Sam Royston, director of policy and research at the Children’s Society, said it was important parents quickly made a claim if their wages fell.

Ultimately Dr Royston estimates that changes to the system will  mean fewer children from low income families will be eligible for free school meals.

Although, he says, there are 1.7million children – in year three or above – living in poverty, the number of children who he says would be eligible to a free school meal would be just 700,000.

In Hertfordshire it’s been estimated that only 8000 children would be eligible for a free school meal, compared to 35,000 who would have been entitled.

Meanwhile Dr Royston also pointed to the lack of future support for families who earned ‘just a bit’ over the £7400 threshold – earning just a few extra pounds would, he estimated, cost parents of three children £1200 a year in school meals.

Steve Basta, customer service development manager for the county council, stressed that parents could make an application – online or by phone – in just a few minutes.

Data presented to the group showed that ‘deprivation funding’ within Hertfordshire – at £3203 per primary pupil and £2670 per secondary pupil – was based on free school meal numbers at individual schools.

And the ‘deprivation’ element of Pupil Premium – which comes directly from government – is also based on free school meals. This year it is £1,320 per primary school pupil and £935 in secondary.

That means a single successful free school meal claim can bring an additional £4523 into a primary school or £3605 into a secondary.

The group heard that there were some headteachers who would routinely ask all parents to apply – to ensure everyone who was entitled made a successful claim.

They also heard that parents with children under seven in Key Stage One did not realise there was an advantage to making a claim, because all children in Key Stage One qualify for a free school meal regardless on parental income.

But a successful claim would mean the kept their entitlement until 2022, even if their income rises.

At the end of the hearing on Monday (October 8) councillors recommended that action was taken to ensure as many eligible parents registered for free school meals as possible, to give parents the protection offered until 2022 and to give schools the best chance of identifying Pupil Premium.