How should schools encourage parents to register their child’s eligibility for free school meals (FSM)?

There are a number of good practices schools can implement to encourage parents to register their children. In particular, schools should consider letting parents know:

  • that registering their child as eligible for FSM will bring more money to the school to help their child achieve;
  • what the school will spend the Pupil Premium on, so they are incentivised to apply;
  • what, if any, other benefits may be available for children registered as eligible for FSM, i.e. help with the cost of music lessons or school trips;
  • that registering for FSM is confidential and their peers, and their child’s peers, will not know they have applied; and
  • what registering for FSM involves and what it means for their child, including the fact that taking up the meal is recommended but optional.

Options for communicating these messages to parents include:

  • sending letters to parents explaining FSM, its link to the Pupil Premium and how to apply – sending more than once to ensure all parents see it;
  • adding reminders to register for FSM in any regular newsletters or e-bulletins to parents;
  • texting all parents asking them to contact the school office if they receive benefits, as they may be able to help secure extra funding for the school;
  • ensuring reception teachers or parent liaison staff are talking to new parents about signing up for FSM when they carry out home visits;
  • encouraging teaching assistants / parent liaison staff / learning mentors to have confidential conversations with parents about registering their children as eligible for FSM, particularly if they have English as an additional language, or lower levels of literacy;
  • placing information about FSM and the Pupil Premium on your website;
  • holdinging discreet and informative school assemblies on FSM and the Pupil Premium, giving pupils confidence that, if they register as eligible, it will be kept confidential.

Schools should let parents know that in simply registering their child as eligible for FSM the school receives additional funding that will be used to help their child achieve to the best of their ability. They should also remind parents of the nutritional and financial benefits of their children eating the free meals.

Further information on improving the dining room environment to encourage children to eat their free meals can be found on the School Food Trust website.

 What can local authorities do to help increase registration for free school meals?

Local authorities (LAs) can help by including the link between Pupil Premium funding and FSM registration in their communications, and by making the process for registering for eligibility for and applying for FSM as easy as possible. Action LAs can take now includes:

  • encouraging parents, through council newsletters or magazines, to register their child as eligible for FSM to get additional funding for their child’s school;
  • making explicit on forms and communications that registering for FSM brings additional funding to schools;
  • informing parents of any other benefits that registering for FSM provides, i.e. help with the cost of music tuition or school trips;
  • making clear on forms and communications for parents that registering their child for FSM will also attract Pupil Premium funding, and that while it is recommended their child eat the meal, this is optional – they should register regardless of whether or not they want a meal;
  • signposting parents, via your website home page, to further information about Pupil Premium funding for their child’s school and free school meals; and
  • reviewing and simplifying application forms and including a phone number so parents know who to contact for help.

Local authorities could also consider:

  • ensuring that eligibility information for FSM pupils leaving primary school is passed on to their new secondary school so that they continue to be registered;
  • taking up the FSM eligibility checking service online add-on package, which helps parents register their child for FSM more easily; and
  • creating a text service for parents to register their child for FSM.

Local authorities should also encourage schools to urge parents to register their child as eligible for FSM and support schools in doing so. In particular, LAs should remind schools that their Pupil Premium allocation each year is determined by the number of FSM pupils they have on roll on January census day. 

If you provide information to your schools about pupils registered as eligible for free school meals, you should make clear if this is based only on parents who have registered on the basis that they want their child to have a free school meal. Schools need to be aware that this information does not necessarily include all their eligible pupils.

 Is there a deadline for free school meal registration?

Pupil Premium figures are based on the number of FSM pupils on each school’s roll on January school census day. Whilst parents can register their child as eligible for FSM at any time in the year, we recommend particularly encouraging parents to sign up in time for the census date to ensure the school gets its full allocation, and therefore the full benefit, of the Pupil Premium.

You can ask your local authority how long it will take them to confirm the eligibility of pupils in the run up to the census. This will allow you to determine a last date for registration, which you can then communicate to parents, encouraging them to sign up in time.

 How do we target parents for whom English is an additional language, or who have low literacy levels?

Where you have parents for whom English is an additional language, or who have lower levels of literacy, it may be useful to rely less on written communication which they may struggle to understand.

In this case, you could talk directly to parents, such as at parents’ evenings, when they are collecting their children from school or if necessary, over the phone. Your teaching assistants or parent liaison staff can hold these conversations if you think they may have a closer relationship with the parents.

 What if parents do not want their child to eat the free meals?

Eating the meals is voluntary and parents can decline the offer of a free meal for their child. Parents should be encouraged to register their child as eligible for FSM, regardless of whether they want a meal. Schools and LAs should make sure they are reassured that this can be done confidentially, and understand that this will bring extra funding to the school to help support their child.  Where relevant, parents should also be told of any other benefits registering might bring e.g. help with the cost of school trips.

Free school meals provide a nutritious meal to children from low-income families at no cost. Evidence suggests that eating a healthy hot meal at lunchtime assists children’s concentration and performance at school. If schools follow School Food Trust good practice in registering pupils as eligible for FSM, and providing a suitable dining environment, they can help pupils feel comfortable in eating their free meals.

 But isn’t FSM an inaccurate measure of disadvantage?

FSM is the only pupil level measure of deprivation available. The link between FSM eligibility and underachievement is very strong and data on FSM is easily collected and updated annually. The FSM indicator best fits the rationale for the premium.

From 2012-13 we have extended the reach of the Pupil Premium to those who have previously been eligible for FSM at any point in the last six years.