Cover image

The Universalism Multiplier

The impact of universal free school meal entitlement on families, schools and children.


School food is an important part of children’s educational experience. School lunches can be the fuel that helps children to learn. Lunchtimes are also an important social event in the school day and a vital point of contact between schools and parents. This report aims to understand the impacts of universal free school meal (FSM) entitlement from the perspective of parents and school staff who respectively receive and administer it. The report suggests that there are several impacts of universal FSM entitlement. Taken together, they form a ‘universalism multiplier’ which affords children a richer school experience. The impacts are that universal FSM:

  • Are a lifeline for families
  • May facilitate a virtuous cycle between nutrition, attendance and attainment
  • Help to reduce stigma and social exclusion
  • Help to improve home/school relationships
  • Develop eating habits
  • Offer children a richer school life
Children in blue school uniforms eating lunch

Child poverty campaign

The NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign is fighting to break down the barriers poverty puts up around equal access to education.

Support the campaign

Executive Summary

1. Financial and psychological security

Free School Meals a lifeline for families

Parents from London boroughs where primary Free School Meals areuniversally available, who took part in our interviews and survey, areoverwhelmingly in support of the policy. Those who are struggling to get by in the current climate outlined that the financial and psychological security that universal FSM entitlement gives them reduces both their and their children’s worries about the cost of food at school.

2. Improved nutrition and school engagement

A virtuous cycle: sustenance, nutrition, attendance and attainment

Universal entitlement to FSM may mean more children receive nutritious meals throughout the day which enable them to engage in their education. While it is difficult to identify a causal relationship, some school staff also feel that this has contributed to changing attendance patterns in school, and to improved concentration and engagement in lessons.    

3. Reduction in stigma and social exclusion

Stigma, anxiety and school engagement: means-testing as a dividing line

Universal entitlement reduces the stigma faced by children who would ordinarily receive means-tested FSM. Parents and school staff consistently highlighted the ways in which means-testing stigmatises pupils and can leave them feeling excluded. Parents and school staff highlighted that many children in a means-tested system are aware of the financial difficulties they face and experience additional stress and worry as a consequence.        

4. Improved home/school relationships

Parental engagement and supportive relationships between parents, schools and pupils

    For schools, universal entitlement allows them to divert time and resources spent managing a complex and bureaucratic means-tested system into offering enrichment activities to a wider range of pupils and fostering better relationships with parents. Not having to process lunch money collection and administer school lunch debt was seen as having a significantly positive impact on home/school relationships.’. There was also some evidence of an improvement in the quality and quantity of food provided by schools due to the raised profile of school food as a result of universal entitlement.    

5. Changed eating habits

Developing eating habits and positive practices

Universal entitlement is a crucial part of an equitable educational experience for pupils. The communal experience of eating together was seen to have helped children to develop a taste for new foods that they may not have tried before and to learn new social skills. Some parents we spoke to highlighted that this has helped them with meal times at home.  

6. A richer school life

The universalism multiplier: universal Free School

Meals for a rich educational experience Families on different points on the socio-economic spectrum reported that the financial security afforded by universal FSM entitlement allowed them to invest in additional opportunities for their children. Many parent respondents to our survey highlighted that universal FSM entitlement frees up money and allows them to invest in hobbies, learning and extra-curricular activities for their children such as joining sports teams, purchasing devices for learning or to arrange family activities such as meals out. This feedback from parents was consistent across those who are eligible for Free School Meals via the current national means-tested system, and those that fall outside of the eligibility criteria. As such, universal FSM entitlement can play an important role in supporting all families to build and live full family lives and to provide enriched childhoods for their children.  

Taken together – the positive impact on family finances, improved home/ school relationships and an overall more inclusive experience – universal entitlement can be seen as producing a multiplier effect on the support that children and families receive at school. Beyond the cash value of the meals provided, universal entitlement allows families to invest more in their home life, improves relationships between parents and schools, and affords children the psychological security they need to learn.  

Universal FSM entitlement can be seen as a key lever in ensuring that all children have access to a diverse, inclusive and rich education. The social dividends of implementing universal FSM entitlement in this context are likely to be great.

Back to top