16 to 18 education: free meals for academic year 2015 to 2016

Guidance to help provide free meals to disadvantaged 16 to 18 year old students in further education (FE) funded institutions.

This guidance was withdrawn on

This page contains information related to the 2015 to 2016 academic year. Please visit our student support page for the most up to date guidance.


About this departmental advice

This is departmental advice from the Education Funding Agency (EFA). This advice is non-statutory, and has been produced to help recipients understand their obligation to provide free meals to disadvantaged 16 to 18 year old students in further education (FE) funded institutions.

Expiry or review date.

This advice relates to the 2015 to 2016 academic year.

Who is this advice for?

Maintained school and academy sixth forms are already required by the Education Act 1996 to provide free meals to disadvantaged students who are aged over 16.

From September 2014, this requirement was extended to disadvantaged students following FE courses at the range of FE funded institutions. Funding agreements have been amended to place a legal duty on institutions to comply with this requirement. This guide is intended to support those institutions in providing, and administering, free meals in line with the requirement.

Key points

  • free meals must be made available for all eligible students
  • in the 2015 to 2016 academic year, institutions will receive funding at a rate equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal taken

Allocations will be based on a lagged student number basis from the previous academic year

Eligibility for free meals

Institution eligibility

To be eligible for a free meal, students must be enrolled in further education provision funded via the Education Funding Agency at:

  • general further education colleges, including specialist colleges
  • sixth form colleges
  • commercial and charitable providers
  • higher education institutions (HEIs) with 16 to 19 funding from the EFA
  • independent specialist providers (ISPs)
  • local authorities (LAs) and FE institutions directly funded for 16 to 19s
  • Skills Funding Agency (SFA) only traineeship 16 to 18 providers
  • European Social Fund (ESF) only institutions
  • 16 to 19 academies and free schools
  • 16 to 19 only maintained schools

Student eligibility

Students must be aged between 16 and 18 on 31 August 2015 to be eligible for a free meal in the 2015 to 2016 academic year. Students who turn 19 during their study programme will remain eligible for a free meal until the end of the academic year in which they turn 19 or to the end of their study programme, whichever is sooner.

Students aged 19 to 24 who are subject to a learning difficulty assessment (LDA) or education health and care plan (EHC plan) and ESF students aged between 16 and 18 on 31 August 2015 are also entitled to a free meal while attending their provision if they meet the eligibility criteria.

The following groups of student are not eligible for a free meal:

  • students aged between 14 and 16 (these students are already covered by different provision, ie free school meals (FSM))
  • students aged 19 or over at the start of their study programme, unless they have an LDA or EHC plan
  • apprentices, including those with an LDA or EHC plan

Free meals are targeted at disadvantaged students. For the purposes of eligibility for free meals, disadvantage is defined by the students being in receipt of, or having parents who are in receipt of, one or more of the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • 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 gross income of no more than £16,190, as assessed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • during the initial roll out of the benefit, Universal Credit

A student is only eligible to receive a free meal when they, or a parent/guardian on their behalf, have made a successful application to the institution where they are enrolled see verification of student eligibility.

Feedback from institutions has indicated that there is some confusion about Working Tax Credit and whether children from families in receipt of it are eligible for free meals.

Working Tax Credit is not a qualifying benefit for free meals, and a parent or student in receipt of Working Tax Credits only (or contribution-based Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance) is not entitled to a free meal.

However, if a parent or student is in receipt of Working Tax Credit but is additionally in receipt of one of the entitling benefits listed in the student eligibility section, for example income support, they would then be entitled to a free meal. In other words, receipt of one of the qualifying benefits listed in the eligibility section essentially over-rides any additional benefits they may be in receipt of.

Students must also satisfy the residency criteria set out in the EFA Funding regulation guidance for the 2015 to 2016 academic year.

Verification of student eligibility

The student, or their parent/guardian, must submit an application to the institution where they are enrolled. Institutions should develop their own process for dealing with free meals applications. Some may wish to use a paper application form, whilst others may wish to provide an on-line application option.

As part of the application, institutions must ask the student (or their parent/guardian) to provide evidence of the award of the qualifying benefits set out in section student eligibility, for example an award notice or letter from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) or HMRC. Institutions may want to consider using a combined application form and process for free meals and the 16 to 19 Bursary.

Allocations to institutions

In the 2014 to 2015 academic year, free meals funding was based on students being matched as previous recipients of free school meals at the age of 15 using the young people’s matched administrative dataset (YPMAD). In the 2015 to 2016 academic year, institutions will receive free meals funding based on lagged institution data.

A flag has been added to the individualised learner record (ILR) to record those students who are eligible for and in receipt of free meals funding. We will use this flag to determine the number of eligible students who claimed a free meal in the 2014 to 2015 academic year. This will provide a basis for the free meals allocations in the 2015 to 2016 academic year.

We have taken the proportion of free meals students in the R06 as at 1 November and applied this to the lagged student number to identify the number of fundable free meals students. For new institutions, we have used a local authority average to determine the potential number of students eligible for free meals.

We used the mode of attendance profile of each institution to determine how many of the potentially eligible students attend on either a full-time or part-time basis. Two rates have been applied, one for each of these categories, equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal.

Where institutions have not spent their 2014 to 2015 allocation, ie they reported zero eligible students, they will not receive an allocation for the 2015 to 2016 academic year. Institutions will be expected to use the unspent 2014 to 2015 funding to support eligible students in the new academic year.

If institutions do not have eligible students, they should contact the EFA to return their free meals allocation.

Free meals funding for the 2015 to 2016 academic year will be paid to institutions in two parts: approximately two thirds in September 2015 and up to one third in April 2016.

As institutions are already permitted to use up to 5% of their 16 to 19 Bursary Fund allocation for the administrative costs associated with verifying student eligibility (receipt of qualifying benefits, household income assess, etc); no further administrative contribution may be taken from the free meals funding allocation.

There will be no end of year reconciliation of free meals funding.

The provision of free meals to students

Institutions are required to make provision for free meals to eligible students (ie those who are in receipt of the qualifying benefits and who make a successful application for free meals) for each day that the student attends their study programme, where this is appropriate. To further illustrate this, for example, if a part time student attends for five days a week, 9am to 3pm, for part of their course, then the institution should provide five free meals. Similarly, if a full time student has two days a week when they only attend from 9am to 10am, then the institution does not have to provide meals on those days.

Institutions should encourage and support students in making healthy food choices and should also, where practical, seek to offer hot food options. Many caterers will be able to advise on suitable healthy options to offer students; further sources of information are provided in further information.

Institutions are expected to provide a meal free of charge to eligible students, or to fund the free meal via an electronic credit or voucher which can be redeemed on-site or off-site where institutions have made arrangements with nearby food outlets. Electronic credits and vouchers must be worth a minimum value of £2.41.

If an institution determines that it is necessary to enhance the £2.41 free meals funding rate, ie to provide a meal with a greater value, from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund or other sources, they have the discretion to do so.

However, institutions must consider the value for money and reasonableness of such an enhancement to the £2.41 rate and must be able to justify this, particularly if they choose to make a significant variation from this amount.

Due to the specialist nature of provision within post-16 institutions, the cost of meals is sometimes included as part of the package of support that is agreed with local authorities. In these instances, institutions should deduct the appropriate amount of funding from the total costs of the package for those students who will be eligible for a free meal. This removes the issue of double funding and allows local authorities to utilise funds elsewhere.

The overwhelming majority of students will require a free meal at lunch time to fit in with usual study/attendance patterns. However, institutions may exceptionally choose to make provision for a free meal at an alternative time, for example, as a breakfast, depending on the study pattern of individual students.

Institutions must ensure that they also make free meals provision for students on days when they are off-site as part of their study programme, for instance attending a work placement or work experience. Wherever possible, institutions should provide a voucher that can be used at a nearby food outlet or make arrangements with the work placement or work experience provider to provide a meal.

The expectation is that a meal, voucher or credit will be provided to eligible students. However, this may not be practical in some situations. Institutions will therefore be permitted to offer cash in the following exceptional circumstances.

  • students attending institutions which meet all of the following criteria:
    • have fewer than 50 students in total on roll
    • do not have catering or kitchen facilities on site
    • have no suitable food outlets locally that will agree to take part in a credit or voucher scheme
  • students who are off-site – for example undertaking work placement or work experience as part of their study programme – where the host organisation is unable or unwilling to provide a meal and there is no suitable food outlet locally that will accept a voucher; examples would be where work placements are situated in rural areas or on industrial sites
  • institutions that have more than 50 students in total on roll but which have sites additional to their main campus and which are a) without on-site catering facilities and b) too far away for students to travel to the main campus facilities

Where institutions assess there are particular and exceptional circumstances that fall outside these parameters, they have discretion to make cash payments where they assess that failing to do so will prevent an eligible student from being provided with a meal. Institutions must ensure they record any such decisions as part of their auditable records.

Catering for students with special dietary requirements

Institutions are best placed to make decisions in the case of students who have special dietary requirements, taking into account local circumstances. Institutions are expected to make reasonable adjustments for students with these requirements.

The school food plan’s UIFSM toolkit was developed to help schools implement universal free school meals for infant pupils, but it contains advice on how to cater for pupils with special dietary requirements, which may be helpful to institutions.

Free meals and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund

Institutions are only permitted to use the free meals funding allocated to them by the EFA to support students who meet the free meals criteria as set out in student eligibility.

As set out in the provision of free meals to students, if an institution determines that it is necessary to enhance the £2.41 free meals funding rate, ie to provide a meal with a greater value, from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund or other sources, they have the discretion to do so.

However, if institutions choose to enhance free meals funding from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, they must ensure that they continue to provide sufficient support from that scheme to support students facing the range of barriers to participation (the cost of transport, books, equipment, etc). Free meals funding should not be enhanced to the detriment of these other needs.

Students who are eligible for a free meal may also receive additional support from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, if the institution assesses that they meet the criteria for a defined vulnerable group bursary or that they are facing significant financial barriers to participation and require additional support from their discretionary bursary allocation.

Institutions should, however, ensure that the provision of a free meal or the funding provided to the student for the free meal is considered when assessing their need for support – this point applies both to the vulnerable group bursary and discretionary bursary.

Equally, institutions may use discretionary bursary funds, as they can now, to provide meals to students who are not eligible for free meals as described in section student eligibility but for whom the absence of regular meals is providing a barrier to their participation and achievement.

Communication, governance and monitoring

Raising awareness of free meals

Institutions are responsible for ensuring that their students are aware of the eligibility criteria for free meals and should encourage students who think they meet the criteria to make an application for a free meal.

Institutions should ensure that their free meal provision is clearly set out for students and parents, for example by publishing a statement on their website, providing information at enrolment days, sending letters home to parents, etc.

Students do better in their studies when they have access to proper, regular meals. Institutions are therefore encouraged to support students in the making of healthy food choices by making them aware of relevant information and guidance see further information.

Individualised Learner Record (ILR)

Institutions must complete the free meal field in the ILR to provide information on the take up amongst the number of young people eligible for free meals. This data will be used to inform future allocations.

When completing the field, institutions must ensure that they only record students who are eligible and have taken up the free meal. Students who may have received funding for meals by means of a discretionary 16 to 19 Bursary Fund award should not be recorded in the free meals field. Students who receive Free School Meals (FSM) ie 14 to 15 year-olds, should continue to be reported in the existing field.

The ILR states that code FME2 should be recorded if the student is eligible for, and has taken up, free meals at any point during the academic year. If the student becomes ineligible during the year or is no longer receiving free meals, then this indicator should not be removed until the start of the following academic year.

This code should be recorded, where applicable, for EFA funded students aged 16 to 19, 19 to 24 year-old students who are subject to a LDA or EHC and ESF funded students aged between 16 and 18.

The EFA will analyse data returned by institutions via the ILR and generate future allocations on a lagged student number basis.

Institutions that do not complete the ILR but instead complete the School Census should complete the two free school meals fields.

Audit and scheme protection

Institutions should maintain accurate and up to date records that:

  • evidence which students receive free meals funding
  • confirm student eligibility for funding
  • demonstrate appropriate use of funds

It is the responsibility of individual institutions to decide what evidence they accept and how recent it is. However, they must ensure they can evidence that only students who meet the eligibility criteria for free meals each year receive them. In any instances where institutions have used their discretion to make cash payments which are outside the specified criteria set out in this document, they must ensure these are recorded.

Administration and allocation of free meal funding will be subject to the institution’s normal governance and audit regimes. Free meals funding is also subject to assurance as part of the normal assurance arrangements for 16 to 19 education and training. Institutions should note that, following an audit, funding may be recovered where free meals payments are found to have been made where the student was ineligible for a free meal.

Further information

Further information about healthy eating to help with further education free meal provision is available from the following websites.

  • the Children’s Food Trust (formerly known as the School Food Trust) has produced guidance for schools, which institutions will also be able to use to help them set up a process for dealing with FE free meal applications. The ‘Free School Meals Matter Toolkit’, and a quick guide to free school meals are available at Children’s Food Trust

  • information about healthy eating, including recipes, is available at Change4Life and NHS

Published 20 March 2015