The latest figures by the Department for Education (DfE) showed 20.8 per cent of pupils in England qualified for free school meals in January this year, compared to 17.3 in January 2020. In total, 1.74 million children in England are now eligible, compared to 1.44 million the previous year.
The highest rates were in the northeast, where 27.5 per cent of pupils can claim the meals, followed by 24.5 per cent in the West Midlands. In contrast, only 16 per cent of pupils in the southeast were eligible.
However, the DfE said all regions saw some increase this year, as Covid-19 took its toll on family finances.
Children are entitled to free school meals if a parent or carer receives benefits, including income support or universal credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.
The latest figures come after the government was accused by unions of making a “stealth cut” to pupil premium funding. The top-up payments are given to schools to support children from poorer families, and are partly based on the number of pupils who need free meals.
Normally schools in England report the number of their pupils eligible for the premium in January, but for the 2020-21 academic year, the DfE quietly changed the date for this process to October. As a result, schools will not receive any pupil premium funding for children who became eligible between October and January until next year.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), accused ministers of having “short-changed” schools.
“The increase in free school meal eligibility over the course of the pandemic illustrates the financial impact on many families,” he said. “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus. The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the government.”
He added: “These statistics show that the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by 100,000 in this period, which indicates a very large funding hole. Whatever the motivation for this change in the rules, the result is nothing short of shameful.”
Labour’s shadow minister for children, Tulip Siddiq, said: “The number of children on free school meals was rising even before the pandemic as a decade of Conservative governments piled pressure on families’ budgets.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “Government can no longer ignore the concrete evidence of the rise in children eligible for free school meals, nor can they try to explain it away as a ‘technicality’. This is real money, affecting real children’s lives.
“They must come clean about how much they have saved with this change, and they must put that money back into school budgets immediately.”
The DfE insisted, when commenting about the issue when it arose in March, that using data from October allowed schools to “know their budget earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead”.
“We also recently announced £302m for a recovery premium, building on the pupil premium, which will be targeted towards the most deprived schools to support disadvantaged students’ attainment,” a spokesperson said at the time.
Additional reporting by Press Association
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