Guidance to help provide free meals to disadvantaged 16 to 18 year old students in further education (FE) funded institutions.
About this departmental advice
This is departmental advice from 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.
Who is this advice for?
Maintained school and academy sixth-forms are required by the Education Act 1996 to provide free meals to disadvantaged students who are aged over 16. In the 2014 to 2015 academic year 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.
- free meals must be made available for all eligible students for each day that the student attends their study programme, where this is appropriate
- in the 2016 to 2017 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
- the additional funding for free meals for post-16 students attending further education funded institutions was introduced in the 2014 to 2015 academic year to provide parity with those young people attending school sixth-forms. In the 2016 to 2017 academic year, EFA is removing the ring fence between the free meals in further education allocation and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund discretionary bursary allocation. The 2 allocations will be calculated separately by EFA, but institutions will be given a single overall allocation that includes funding for both schemes to maximise flexibility. Institutions must ensure they manage the single allocation appropriately to ensure all eligible students are provided with a meal in line with this guide
- prior to 2014 to 2015, institutions had been supporting the cost of meals for students who needed them on a discretionary basis from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund. The external evaluation of the Bursary Fund estimated that this represented over £15m of discretionary bursary spend annually. Provision of free meals is now established and in its second year of implementation. Consequently in the 2016 to 2017 academic year EFA is removing £15m from the budget in respect of this double funding by reducing 16 to 19 Bursary Fund discretionary allocations to take account of this for those institutions also in receipt of an allocation for free meals
Eligibility for free meals
To be eligible for a free meal, students must be enrolled in further education provision funded via EFA 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 EFA
- specialist post-16 institutions (SPIs)
- local authorities (LAs) and FE institutions directly funded for 16 to 19
- Skills Funding Agency (SFA) only traineeship 16 to 18 providers
- European Social Fund (ESF) only institutions
- 16 to 19 only academies and free schools
- 16 to 19 only maintained schools
Students must be aged between 16 and 18 on 31 August 2016 to be eligible for a free meal in the 2016 to 2017 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 an Education Health and Care Plan (EHC Plan) and ESF students aged between 16 and 18 on 31 August 2016 are also entitled to a free meal while attending their provision if they meet the eligibility criteria.
The following groups of students are not eligible for free meals in further education support:
- students aged between 14 and 16 (these students are already covered by different provision, that is Free School Meals (FSM))
- students aged 19 or over at the start of their study programme, unless they have an EHC Plan
- apprentices, including those with an 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 (HMRC)
- Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after someone stops 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.
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 who is in receipt of only Working Tax Credits is not entitled to a free meal.
However, if a parent or student is in receipt of one of the other qualifying benefits (with the exception of Child Tax Credit) as well as Working Tax Credit then they are eligible for free meals, ie the other qualifying benefit takes precedence over Working Tax Credit.
EFA also wishes to remind institutions that at present only Child Tax Credit has an income threshold (no more than £16,190 as shown above). The income threshold applies solely to Child Tax Credit and not to any of the other qualifying benefits. Institutions do not need to undertake any additional calculation relating to the amount of the award and/or the household income.
Students must also satisfy the residency criteria set out in EFA Funding regulation guidance for the 2016 to 2017 academic year.
Verification of student eligibility
The student, or their parent/guardian, must submit an application for free meals 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, 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 2016 to 2017 academic year institutions will receive an allocation of funding for free meals based on their 2015 to 2016 ILR RO6 data returns and their lagged student number, ie the number of students they have assessed as eligible for, and in receipt of, free meals in the 2015 to 2016 academic year at RO6 combined with the number of students funded in the 2016 to 2017 academic year to provide an all year number.
The 2016 to 2017 academic year fundable free meals students have been apportioned across the funding bands, using the same methodology as for mainstream allocations. Band 5, Band 4 and Band 1 FTEs are full-time students. Band 3 and Band 2 are part-time students. Two funding rates have been applied, one for full-time students and one for part-time students, equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal.
Where an institution’s 2015 to 2016 academic year R06 data return had 0 students flagged as eligible for, and in receipt of, free meals, the allocation has been based on the number of fundable free meals students for the 2015 to 2016 academic year, (based on information from the 2014 to 2015 academic year R06 data return). Institutions should not assume that EFA will follow this approach in future years and are strongly recommended to make data returns showing the number of students they have assessed as eligible for, and in receipt of, free meals on an ongoing basis. EFA may reconcile 2016 to 2017 academic year allocations that have been generated based on 0 free meals students in the 2015 to 2016 academic year R06 data return where subsequent data returns show that the institution has been allocated too much funding.
To make the £15m adjustment (set out above), we have calculated each institution’s share (percentage) of the total amount of free meals allocation. This percentage has then been applied to the £15m adjustment for double funding to calculate the amount that needs to be subtracted from their discretionary bursary allocation. We have built protection levels into this process so that no institution experiences a reduction of greater than 25% for their 16 to 19 Bursary Fund allocation and no institution has a 16 to 19 Bursary Fund allocation of less than £500.
If institutions do not have eligible students in the academic year, they should contact EFA to return their free meals allocation.
Free meals funding for the 2016 to 2017 academic year will be paid to institutions in 2 parts: approximately two- thirds in September 2016 and one third in April 2017.
Institutions may use up to 5% of their single allocation (that is free meals and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund) for the administrative costs associated with verifying student eligibility (receipt of qualifying benefits, household income assessment, etc).
Although institutions are being given a single allocation for free meals in further education and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund in the 2016 to 2017 academic year, EFA will confirm to institutions on funding statements how much has been allocated to them for each of the 2 elements to create the overall total.
There will be no end of year reconciliation of free meals funding and institutions are permitted to carry unspent funds over to the next academic year.
Any unspent funds which are carried forward from the 2015 to 2016 academic year must continue to be used to support students. Where institutions have been given a single overall allocation for the 2016 to 2017 academic year that includes funding for both free meals and discretionary bursary, unspent free meals funding from the previous academic year may be used for either free meals or discretionary bursary payments in the new academic year. Any unspent funds must not be added to general institution funds.
Institutions must fully utilise any unspent funds for either free meals or discretionary bursary before using their new allocation for the 2016 to 2017 academic year. Free meals funding from the 2015 to 2016 academic year should not be carried forward again and institutions should contact EFA to ask to return any such funds.
Further information about the allocations methodology is set out in EFA funding statements (issued to institutions in March 2016).
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 student attends for 5 days a week, 9am to 3pm, for part of their course, then the institution should provide 5 free meals. Similarly, if a student has 2 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 the further information section.
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 single funding allocation 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 some post-16 institutions, the cost of meals is sometimes included as part of the package of support for High Needs Students 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
The additional funding for free meals for post 16 students attending further education funded institutions was introduced in the 2014 to 2015 academic year to provide parity with those young people attending school sixth-forms. In the 2016 to 2017 academic year, EFA is removing the ring fence between the free meals in further education allocation and the discretionary bursaries allocation. The 2 allocations will be calculated separately by EFA, but institutions will be given a single overall allocation that includes funding for both schemes to maximise flexibility. Institutions must ensure they manage the single allocation appropriately to ensure all eligible students are provided with a meal in line with this guide.
Further detail about the allocations methodology and adjustments that have been made for the 2016 to 2017 academic year is set out above.
Institutions have discretion to manage the single allocation as they deem most appropriate to best provide support to eligible students for both schemes. However, free meals in further education remains an entitlement and institutions must ensure they manage the single allocation appropriately to ensure that all students entitled to a free meal are provided with one.
As set out above, 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, whether from their single allocation or other sources, they have the discretion to do so.
However, if institutions choose to enhance free meals funding from the single allocation, they must ensure that they continue to provide sufficient support to support students facing the range of barriers to participation (such as, the cost of transport, books, equipment). 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 the eligible benefits section 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, nutritional 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 also 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.
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 be reported in the separate field available for this.
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.
EFA will analyse data returned by institutions and will use it to calculate funding for free meals in the following academic year based on ILR R04 data returns, ie the numbers of students the institution has assessed as eligible for, and in receipt of, free meals in the academic year.
Institutions that do not complete the ILR but instead complete the School Census should complete the 2 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 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 on the Trust’s website.
Published: 4 April 2016
Updated: 8 November 2016
- Clarification about carrying over free meals funds from the previous academic year; and what those funds can and can’t be used for.
- First published.