Need for free school meals soars

An extre 300,000 pupils became elegible for free school meals since last year

MORE than one in five pupils are now eligible for free school meals (FSM) following a steep rise during the pandemic, new government data have revealed.

Department for Education (DfE) data on schools, pupils and their characteristics, published yesterday morning, show an extra 300,000 pupils became eligible for free school meals since last year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the rise of more than 100,000 pupils ‘indicates a very large funding hole’.

‘Whatever the motivation for this change in the rules the result is nothing short of shameful.’

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘Thousands more pupils from families on low incomes are slipping through the cracks and are not provided with this much needed support. No child should come to school too hungry to learn.

‘The government must act urgently to implement the recommendations of the National Food Strategy and expand FSM eligibility to all children and young people growing up in families in receipt of Universal Credit, as well as roll out FSM provision to cover the school holidays.’

In England, children living in households on income-related benefits are eligible, as long as their annual household income does not exceed £7,400 after tax.

As of January, 20.8 per cent of all pupils were eligible, up from 17.3 per cent last year. Overall, it means 1.74 million pupils can now claim free school meals.

While the percentage of pupils on free school meals was already increasing prior to the pandemic, the increase this year is larger. Since the first lockdown, an additional 427,000 pupils can now claim free meals.

But rates vary by region, with some areas recording around one in four pupils eligible for free meals.

The highest rates were in the North East (27.5 per cent of pupils), followed by 24.5 per cent in the West Midlands.

In contrast, just 16 per cent are eligible for FSM in the South East. The DfE said all regions had seen an increase in 2020.

The new figures also suggest schools are potentially missing out on funding for over 100,000 vulnerable pupils after the government altered its method for calculating pupil premium.

In December last year, ministers decided to base premium funding on the number of free school meal pupils schools had in October, rather than January as it had done previously.

Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said the new figures are ‘further indication that the government’s change to how the pupil premium is allocated means that pupils and schools are now missing out on vital funding’.