Updated guidance on free school meals published

4 mins read

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Tags: campaigns, free school meals, eotas, free school meals guidance

In a huge win for disabled children and the free school meal disability inclusion campaign, the government has published its updated guidance on free school meals in England.

The guidance now includes a section on making reasonable adjustments for disabled children, such as by offering a food voucher. It describes the duty to make reasonable adjustments as “anticipatory”. Schools should be actively looking at which disabled pupils might be missing out on their school lunch and offering an alternative.

The guidance also now includes a section on children with an education package called education otherwise than at school (EOTAS). This makes clear that local authorities should provide free school meals to eligible children unable to attend school due to their special educational needs and who have an EOTAS package.

The update will benefit over 100,000 disabled children currently missing out on free school meals, whose families have faced a loss of £600 a year in financial support for their family.

Hard-fought win for parent campaigners

The publication of the updated guidance today shows the power of parent campaigners.

For the last three years, parent Natalie Hay has led a campaign to stop disabled children missing out on free school meals. Natalie independently raised £8,000 through crowdfunding to steer the campaign into legal action. This funding enabled the instructing of human rights lawyers to draft legal letters to help support all families of disabled children eligible for free school meals, but not getting help. It also allowed Natalie to recruit and lead a group of parents to take legal action and take the government to court.

In November 2023, the government conceded the case and admitted discrimination may be happening. The government agreed, in their letter to Natalie, to “issue new guidance around March 2024”. In the government’s response to legal action, they agreed for the first time to make their free school meals policy fully inclusive to such children receiving EOTAS. This legal action was a pivotal part of the campaign, because the government finally promised to update policy according to the Equality Act 2010.

Along the way, Natalie has been supported by Contact and other parent campaigners, including Irene Dow, who secured a Westminster Hall Debate in January via her local Labour MP, Ian Byrne. It was at this debate that Mr Byrne called on the government to update its free school meals guidance to make clear local authority and school responsibilities to make reasonable adjustments to disabled pupils. The School Minister, Damian Hinds, MP agreed to do this.

The scales have tipped to a more equal position

Anna Bird, Chief Executive of Contact, says:

“We welcome the updated guidance and its inclusion of the duty on schools to make reasonable adjustments.

“This will benefit more than 100,000 eligible disabled children up and down the country. They’ve been missing out on free school meal entitlement worth £570 a year. It’s a question of fairness, and today the scales have tipped to a more equal position.

“The guidance makes clear that schools do have a duty to provide an alternative to disabled children who can’t access their free school meal in the regular way. It comes on the back of a hard-fought campaign by parent carer Natalie Hay. She led and steered the campaign over three years, including launching a legal challenge that paved the way to today’s outcome.

‘We hope schools and councils are made aware of the guidance changes. We look forward to the Department for Education sharing how they are going to communicate the updated guidance with schools and councils across England.”

Next steps

We hope the updated guidance published this week will make it easier for parents to access food vouchers in lieu of their free lunch entitlement. We will update the template letters to include links to the updated guidance.

We’ll also continue to work with other UK governments to ensure their guidance on reasonable adjustments is clear too.

Missing out on free school meals?

Download our resources

Thanks to campaign leader Natalie Hay’s fundraising we have been able to work with human rights lawyers to produce a series of resources to help eligible families claim the free school meals they’re entitled to, but missing out on.

This includes newly-updated template letters for children in different school settings, with EOTAS packages or awaiting placements.

If you’re missing out on free school meals