Sharp rise in pupils on free school meals

Growing numbers of children are becoming eligible for free school meals as more and more families sink below the breadline during the recession.

According to the latest figures from the Department for Education, almost 1.2 million pupils are entitled to claim free lunches this year – a increase of more than 83,000 in a year.

The total has risen for two years in succession, and analysts say this is likely to be a continuing effect of the economic downturn.

In primary schools across England in January, 18.5 per cent of children were eligible for free meals – the Government's standard measure of deprivation – compared with 17.1 per cent a year ago. The increase is equivalent to an extra 59,100 pupils.

In secondary schools, 15.4 per cent, or 441,000 pupils, were eligible for free dinners – which is up from 14.5 per cent, or 417,970 pupils, last year.

Pilot schemes offering universal free meals to primary school pupils were introduced by three education authorities last September, which could account for a proportion of the rise. However, the figures also show how the poorest families have struggled to cope during the economic downturn.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The number of primary school pupils entitled to free meals has gone up in part because of the additional provision provided in the last pre-Budget report, which we thought was a very good idea. We do know the last government had a programme aiming to eradicate child poverty but we also know that the gap between the richest and poorest in the country was opening up rather than closing.

"This, combined with the possible effect of job loss through recession, may account for the larger numbers of secondary school pupils entitled to free school meals.

"The challenge to the new Government is to maintain child poverty reduction targets and to seek to close the gap between the richest and poorest."

The official statistics give a snapshot of the make-up of English state schools at the start of this year. They reveal that nearly one million pupils speak a language other than English as their first language.

One in six (16 per cent) of children aged 11 and under speaks English as a second language – or 518,020 pupils overall, according to the DfE survey.

In secondary schools, the figure was about one in eight (11.6 per cent) – 378,210 pupils. Across all schools in England, there were 905,610 students who had English as a second language.