HE provider good practice briefing for students in receipt of free school meals (FSM)

This good practice briefing is written for staff working in universities and colleges and supports the introduction of the new UCAS flag to identify applicants who have been in receipt of free school meals (FSM). Here, we outline the common challenges for these students, share examples of good practice being done around the UK to improve access to and success in higher education, and provide considerations ahead of the new question.

Who are students in receipt of free school meals?

Students in receipt of FSM will have met the government's eligibility criteria, which varies slightly depending on where they live. This is available on the relevant government websites: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Data on students in receipt of FSM is collected in state-maintained schools and considered to be a good indicator of socio-economic disadvantage in the UK.

Students in state-maintained schools can access further funding through the Pupil Premium in England, Pupil Development Grant in Wales and Pupil Equity Fund in Scotland. The intention of this funding is to help improve the outcomes for disadvantaged children and close the attainment gap. Eligibility for this funding is commonly used to select students for higher education outreach and WP programmes.

Data from around the UK indicate that students eligible for free school meals are significantly less likely to progress to higher education:

It is important to note that not all students who are eligible for FSM apply to receive them. Research by The Children’s Society found that although there are approximately 1.5 million eligible children in state schools in England, around 200,000 do not register to receive them, and a further 300,000 children who are registered do not claim them.

It should also be noted that FSM is not the only measure of disadvantage; many children who live in poverty are ineligible for them.

We recommend HE providers be alert to other indicators of disadvantage and any intersectionality of personal circumstances when, for example, assessing an applicant for additional support or contextualised offers. As such, FSM is one of several equality dimensions used in the UCAS Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) to measure equality in access to higher education.


The UCAS application

To support the identification of students with individual support needs, UCAS has introduced a series of new questions into the application from 2023 entry. One of these questions enables students who are in receipt of free school meals to self-declare their circumstances:

Are you currently receiving free school meals, or have you been in receipt of free school meals during your secondary education?  Yes/No/Don’t know

Young people in the UK are usually eligible for free school meals if their parents or carers are on a low income or in receipt of certain benefits. If you are not sure, ask your school – they will be able to confirm this for you. 

You may also be eligible if you are paid qualifying benefits directly, instead of through your parent or carer. 

For more information about answering this question read our FAQs. 

This question is supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify why we ask this question, how the student’s information will be used, and the support they may be able to access by sharing their circumstances.

Use of this question 

This question has been introduced to help universities and colleges connect students who have been in receipt of free school meals to any support and information they may need to make the transition to higher education, and succeed in their studies. 

This question is asked in addition to the verified data we provide to universities and colleges at the point of application about FSM eligibility directly from Government sources, covers English and Northern Irish state school pupils. As such, responses to this question are not verified by UCAS. We encourage universities and colleges are expected to make contact with the student directly to discuss their support needs in more detail and check eligibility for any bursaries or other support packages. UCAS expects this information will be shared with staff members responsible for arranging any support or helping students through the application and into higher education as required (e.g. the student support team, widening participation team).

Free school meals data

We’re pleased to confirm we’ve worked with the Department for Education to secure a commitment to access individual-level free school meals (FSM) data for English 18 and 19 year old applicants for applicants to the 2021and 2022 cycles. The variable supplied will be whether, at the end of key stage four, the applicant was known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM) in the previous six years.

This data will be made available alongside MEM2021 – a variant of the multiple equality measure (MEM) – which calculates the probability of your English 18 and 19 year old applicants entering higher education based on several equality factors. MEM 2021 incorporates:

  • free school meals eligibility at the end of key stage four
  • where applicants live, using POLAR4 data
  • income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI)
  • school type

A further variant of the MEM is available for all UK domiciled applicants – this incorporates POLAR4 data, index of multiple deprivation (IMD), and school type.

HE providers that are existing modernised contextualised data service (MCDS) customers will receive the new FSM data alongside the MEM2021 supply automatically in the same file as your existing data, so there is no need to sign up. If you are not an MCDS customer, simply complete our web form and you’ll receive the data within five working days.

If you have any questions, please email mcds@ucas.ac.uk.

For more information, visit our widening participation page. 


Three key challenges for students in receipt of free school meals

1. Academic performance at GCSE and A level

In England, the average attainment 8 score for FSM pupils was 34.4 in 2019 – 14 points lower than non-FSM pupils. A level outcomes follow a similar pattern to GCSE, with 4.9% of FSM students achieving three or more A/A* grades, compared to 11.0% of non-FSM students (2015/16).

In Northern Ireland at GCSE, 72.0% of FSM pupils achieved five or more grades A*-C (48.6% including English and Maths) compared to non-FSM pupils (89.7% and 78.1% respectively) in 2017/18. At A level, 22% of FSM students achieved three or more grades A*-C compared to 47.1% of non-FSM students.

In Scotland the percentage of FSM-eligible S5/S6 school leavers achieving at least three Highers at grade C or above is consistently much lower than non-eligible pupils across all SIMD quintiles (2015/16).

2. Continuation rates and success in higher education

Continuation rate data from the Office for Students indicates a 5.7% difference between FSM and non-FSM students continuing their HE studies in 2016-17 (England only). Even high-performing students from disadvantaged are more likely to have lower degree outcomes, which may indicate additional support is required.

3. Mental and physical health and wellbeing

A wealth of research indicates a clear link between socio-economic disadvantage and poor mental health, with those living in the lowest income households in the UK being two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest. Research from the HeadStart programme has found that a young person’s eligibility for free school meals could lead to an elevated risk of their experiencing mental health difficulties. Furthermore, the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2018-19 report highlighted that cultural differences between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers in HE can lead to alienation and self-doubt.


Considerations ahead of the introduction of the new question

To support pre-applicants

  • How can you counter the stigma of applicants giving this information through your own communications?
  • Do you make FSM students aware of any support for which they may be eligible (e.g. bursaries and scholarships)?
  • Are marketing and recruitment teams aware of the support available to students from low-income backgrounds, and is this flagged at recruitment events?
  • Do you know how to receive individual level free school meals data from UCAS (see above)?

To support applicants

  • What opportunities will students have to tell you about their circumstances in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment)?
  • What processes are in place to (sensitively) share information about an applicant’s circumstances with the student services team? Are all parties involved aware of their responsibilities and next steps?
  • Is the information relayed to the student’s academic tutor? Would staff benefit from further training or information to help them understand the particular needs of FSM students?
  • Do you contact students early in the cycle so they know who to contact with any questions or support needs, instead of after Confirmation? 

To support transition

  • Are students made aware of any provision through which they can prepare for their studies ahead of transition (e.g. summer schools, workshops)?
  • Do you contact students ahead of their arrival to provide details of health and wellbeing support services available through the university, and to encourage contact to discuss any concerns or needs?
  • Do students fully understand what support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day?

To support ongoing study

  • Are the three key challenges (as outlined above) covered, or is further provision needed?
  • Will support be reviewed periodically (e.g. to accommodate changes to the student’s circumstances)?
  • How will you support this group with making the transition from HE into employment (e.g. work experience, careers advice)?

Examples of good practice and support

89 higher education providers around the UK specifically refer to free school meal eligibility in their 2019/20 widening access and participation plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England, and Outcome Agreements in Scotland). Below, we present a selection of good practice, which we hope will inspire others when considering how to implement or improve support for this group of students.

Examples of ‘quick wins’

  • Key challenges for FSM students recognised during the admissions process, and considered within any contextualised admissions policy.
  • FSM used as one of a range of indicators for eligibility to widening access/participation and outreach programmes.
  • Students eligible for financial or other support are made aware of this as early as possible.
  • Students asked about circumstances for which they may require support during Clearing (ensure it is included in any ‘script’).
  • Support for FSM students to engage with the careers advice service, with priority booking for certain events to encourage participation.

Examples of medium-term changes – may require changes to current plans, policies, or processes

  • FSM students specifically mentioned in your widening access and participation strategy (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England, or Outcome Agreements in Scotland).
  • An up-to-date policy for FSM students which clarifies the support they can expect.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies, to help address barriers to socialising and reduce loneliness.
  • Help for students to fill any skills gaps and increase confidence by signposting study skills sessions, and offering access courses, workshops, summer schools, and MOOCS.
  • Help with organising work experience, and bursaries to help students take advantage of opportunities.
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.

Examples of longer-term changes, which may require planning and substantial changes

  • Progress tracking of FSM-eligible students, with an evaluation of the support provided, and an impact assessment to ensure support is effective.
  • Programmes of academic support and mentoring offered to local primary and secondary schools with a high proportion of FSM-eligible children to help raise attainment at KS4 and below.
  • A foundation year programme to prepare students in specified circumstances (e.g. FSM eligibility) to access higher education either at your own or another provider.