An estimated 5,500 school-age children in poverty in Bolton are not getting free school meals due to "restrictive" qualifying criteria, new analysis by two poverty groups shows.

The authors of a new report released on Wednesday, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA), are urging local leaders to ensure children can get a free lunch – as well as calling on the government to introduce universal free school meals.

In London, all primary school children are receiving free school meals this year, with mayor Sadiq Khan providing £140 million to continue a scheme implemented in the capital.

However, in the rest of the country, free school meals are only guaranteed until Year 3. From then, children must be in households on universal credit with an income below £7,400 per year to qualify – a threshold which hasn’t changed since 2018, despite inflation.

In their report, the CPAG and GMPA say this means 100,000 school-age children in poverty across the North West cannot claim free school meals, including 5,500 in Bolton.

Sign up to our newsletters to get the latest stories sent straight to your inbox.

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of education policy Kate Anstey said: “Seeing the statistics at local level brings this issue home.

“Children in every corner of the North West are sitting in classrooms too hungry to concentrate and learn because they don’t qualify for a free school meal.

“Too many children are being let down by the government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold – and these numbers should act as a wake-up call.

“The government must bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs.

“Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past.”

Bolton Council says ‘help is available’

A spokesperson for Bolton Council said: “Bolton Council has worked closely with local partners to develop a comprehensive package of support for families struggling with the cost of living.

“Help is available regardless of eligibility for free school meals, including our local welfare provision, financial advice and housing support.

“More details are available on the dedicated Cost of Living section of the council website.”

Follow The Bolton News on Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and TikTok.

Department for Education says ‘protections in place’

The Department for Education says there are protections in place to ensure those who were eligible for free school meals won’t lose their entitlement if their household circumstances improve as Universal Credit is rolled out.

A spokesperson said: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century - doubling the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one sixth to one third.

“We have also put protections in place to ensure that children who are eligible for free school meal retain that entitlement even if their household circumstances change.”

If you have a story, I cover the whole borough of Bolton. Please get in touch at or click to send me a message on WhatsApp or on Signal on 07517566383.