16 to 18 education: free meals in further education for academic year 2017 to 2018

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This guidance was withdrawn on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 is about the 2017 to 2018 academic year. Please visit our student support page for the latest information.


About this departmental advice

This is departmental advice from Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). This advice is non-statutory, and is designed to help recipients understand their obligation to provide free meals to disadvantaged students in further education (FE) funded institutions.

Who is this advice for?

The 1996 Education Act requires maintained school and academy sixth-forms 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.

Key points

  • free meals must be made available for all eligible students for each day the student attends their study programme, where this is appropriate
  • institutions will receive funding at a rate equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal. Allocations are based on a lagged student number basis from the previous academic year
  • students aged over 19 who are continuing on the same study programme (19+ continuers) they started before they turned 19 are eligible for a free meal
  • students aged over 19 with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) are eligible for a free meal
  • in the 2016 to 2017 academic year, we removed the ring fence between free meals in further education and 16 to 19 Bursary Fund discretionary bursary allocations. This flexibility remains in place
  • before the extension of free meals in further education, institutions were supporting the cost of meals for students who needed them from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund. In the 2016 to 2017 academic year, we adjusted 16 to 19 Bursary Fund discretionary allocations for institutions also in receipt of a free meals allocation to take account of this double funding. We have made similar adjustment this year

Eligibility for free meals

Institution eligibility

Students must be enrolled in further education provision funded via ESFA to be eligible for a free meal. Eligible institutions are:

  • general further education colleges, including specialist colleges
  • sixth-form colleges
  • commercial and charitable providers
  • higher education institutions (HEIs) with 16 to 19 funding from ESFA
  • 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

Student eligibility


To be eligible for a free meal in the 2017 to 2018 academic year the student must be aged 16 or over but under 19 at 31 August 2017.

Students aged 19 or over are only eligible for a free meal if they:

  • are continuing on a study programme they began aged 16 to 18 (‘19+ continuers’) or
  • have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)

These 2 groups of students can receive a free meal while they continue to attend education (in the case of a 19+ continuer, this must be the same programme they started before they turned 19), as long as their eligibility continues.

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 EHCP or are a 19+ continuer
  • apprentices, including those with an EHCP

Eligible benefits

Free meals are targeted at disadvantaged students. Free meals in further education defines disadvantage as 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.

The Department for Education is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, other Government departments and interested parties to establish new criteria for determining entitlements to free meals as the roll-out of Universal Credit continues. Any changes will be notified via an update to this guide.

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.

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. In other words, the other qualifying benefit takes precedence over Working Tax Credit.

Institutions should note that only Child Tax Credit currently has an income threshold (a maximum of £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 Funding regulation guidance for the 2017 to 2018 academic year.

Verification of student eligibility

Institutions are responsible for assessing applications for free meals. The student, or their parent/guardian, must submit an application for free meals to the institution where they are enrolled. Some institutions may use a paper application form, others may use an on-line application form.

As part of the application, institutions must ask the student (or their parent/guardian) to provide evidence of the award of the qualifying benefits. This might be 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.

Institutions will be aware that the Department for Education provides an electronic Eligibility Checking System (ECS) that enables local authorities to check free school meal (FSM) eligibility on behalf of institutions.

It is important that institutions and local authorities understand that the legal gateway (section 110 of the Education Act 2005) that enables the Department to obtain benefit information held by DWP and HRMC for checking eligibility is limited to FSM. Information from the ECS cannot be used to check entitlement for free meals for post-16 students.

Allocations to institutions

Where possible, we have based 2017 to 2018 academic year free meals funding for further education institutions on their 2015 to 2016 academic year full year data and their funded student number for the 2017 to 2018 academic year. We have used the number of students assessed as eligible for, and in receipt of, free meals in the 2015 to 2016 academic year as a percentage of the total number of students aged 16 to 19 reported in 2015 to 2016 full year data. This establishes the number of students we might reasonably expect to be eligible for free meals support in the 2017 to 2018 academic year.

As a secondary measure (if 2015 to 2016 full year academic year information is not available) we have used the equivalent end of 2014 to 2015 academic year data. Institutions should not assume we 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.

We have apportioned the number of fundable free meals students 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 apply, one for full-time students and one for part-time students, equivalent to £2.41 per student per meal.

We may reconcile any 2017 to 2018 academic year allocations generated based on 0 free meals students in the end of 2016 to 2017 academic year data return where subsequent data returns show the institution has been allocated too much funding.

To make an appropriate adjustment for double funding between free meals and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, we calculated each institution’s share (percentage) of the total number of students supported with free meals who informed the 2017 to 2018 free meals allocations. This percentage has been applied to the adjustment figure to calculate the amount to be subtracted from each institution’s discretionary bursary allocation.

We have built in protection levels so no institution experiences a reduction greater than the amount deducted in 2016 to 2017, or greater than 25% for their 16 to 19 Bursary Fund allocation. We have also ensured no institution has a 16 to 19 Bursary Fund allocation of less than £500.

Further information about the allocations methodology is set out in the 16 to 19 revenue funding statements (issued to institutions in February to March 2017).


We will pay free meals funding for the 2017 to 2018 academic year to institutions in 2 parts: approximately two-thirds in September 2017 and the remaining one third in April 2018.

If any institution with a 2017 to 2018 free meals allocation does not have eligible students in the 2017 to 2018 academic year, they should contact us to return their allocation.

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.

Carrying forward funds

ESFA permits institutions to carry unspent funds over to the next academic year.

Institutions must ensure that any unspent funds they carry forward continue to be used to support students. Funds that are carried forward cannot be added to general institution funds.

Institutions given a single overall allocation for the 2016 to 2017 academic year that included funding for both free meals and discretionary bursary can carry forward funds from both schemes. The funding can be used for either free meals or discretionary bursary payments in the new academic year 2017 to 2018.

Institutions must fully utilise any unspent funds for either discretionary bursary or free meals before using their new academic year allocation.

We remind institutions that discretionary bursary and/or free meals funding cannot be carried forward for more than one year. Institutions should contact us to arrange to return any unspent funds they hold from any year prior to 2016 to 2017.

The provision of free meals to students

Institutions must make provision for free meals to eligible students (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.

For example, if a student attends for 5 days a week, 9am to 3pm, for part of their course, the institution should provide 5 free meals. 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 are responsible for encouraging and supporting students in making healthy food choices. 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 should also offer hot food options where practical.

Institutions should provide a meal free of charge to eligible students, or fund the free meal via an electronic credit or voucher that 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 it is necessary to enhance the £2.41 free meals funding rate, in other words, to provide a meal with a greater value, from the single funding allocation or other sources, they have discretion to do so.

Institutions must consider the value for money and reasonableness of 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.

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 consider the issue of potential double funding for meals when assessing the need to support. This might be by deducting the appropriate amount of funding from the total costs of the package for those students who will be eligible for a free meal, enabling local authorities to utilise those funds elsewhere.

The majority of students will require a free meal at lunchtime 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, a breakfast, depending on the study pattern of individual students.

Institutions must 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 the student with a voucher they can use at nearby food outlets or arrange with the work placement or work experience provider to provide a meal.

We expect that a meal, voucher or credit will be provided to eligible students. However, this may not be practical in some situations and institutions are permitted to make cash payments to students in the following exceptional circumstances:

Students attending institutions that meet all of the following criteria:

  • fewer than 50 students in total on roll
  • no catering or kitchen facilities on site
  • no suitable food outlets locally that will agree to take part in a credit or voucher scheme

Students who are off-site on work placement or work experience as part of their study programme whose host organisation is unable or unwilling to provide a meal and who have no access to a suitable food outlet that will accept a voucher. Examples include work placements in rural areas or on industrial sites.

Institutions with more than 50 students in total on roll but which have sites away from their main campus that a) have no on-site catering facilities and b) are too far away for students to travel back to facilities on the main campus.

If institutions identify particular and exceptional circumstances that fall outside these parameters, they have discretion to make cash payments if they believe 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

Additional funding for free meals for post-16 students at further education funded institutions was introduced in the 2014 to 2015 academic year.

We removed the ring fence between the free meals in further education allocation and the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund discretionary bursary allocation in the 2016 to 2017 academic year. This flexibility remains in place for the 2017 to 2018 academic year.

Further detail about the allocations methodology and adjustments that have been made for the 2017 to 2018 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. Free meals in further education remains an entitlement and institutions must 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 it is necessary to enhance the £2.41 free meals funding rate and 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, they must ensure they do so in a way which ensures that funding for discretionary bursaries continues to provide sufficient help to students facing the range of barriers to participation (for example the cost of transport, books, equipment). Institutions should not enhance free meals funding to the detriment of other needs.

Institutions can give additional support to students eligible for a free meal from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund, if the institution assesses they meet the criteria for a defined vulnerable group bursary or that they are facing significant financial barriers to participation and require support from the discretionary bursary.

Institutions should ensure they consider the provision of a free meal, or the funding provided to the student for the free meal, when they assess their overall need for support, whether from the vulnerable or discretionary bursary.

Institutions can continue to use the discretionary bursary fund to provide meals to students who are not eligible for free meals if the absence of regular meals is providing a barrier to the student’s participation.

Communication, governance and monitoring

Raising awareness of free meals

Institutions are responsible for ensuring students are aware of the eligibility criteria for free meals. They should also encourage students who may meet the criteria to make an application for a free meal.

Institutions should clearly set out their free meal provision for students and parents. This might be 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. We encourage institutions to support students to make healthy food choices by raising awareness 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 number of young people eligible for free meals. This is code FME2.

Institutions must ensure they only record students who are eligible and have taken up the free meal in the free meal field.

Students who receive funding for meals from the discretionary 16 to 19 Bursary Fund must not be recorded in the free meals field nor should students who receive Free School Meals (FSM) (for example, 4 to 15 year-olds). FSM students should be reported in the separate FSM field.

The ILR states that code FME2 should be used 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 stops taking free meals, FME2 should be retained and not removed until the start of the following academic year.

This code should be recorded for eligible students who are ESFA funded students aged 16 or over and under 19, 19 to 24 year-old students who are subject to an EHCP, ESF funded students aged between 16 and 18 and 19+ continuers.

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 must 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

Institutions are responsible for deciding what evidence they accept for free meals 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. 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 is subject to institutions 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, ESFA might recover funding where free meals payments are found to have been made to ineligible students.

Further information

Further information about healthy eating to help with further education free meal provision can be found at the following websites.

The Children’s 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.

Information about healthy eating, including recipes, is available at Change4Life and NHS.

Published 2 March 2017