Nearly a quarter of pupils are now eligible for free schools meals in England as figure rises again

Eligiblity figures have risen every year since 2018, now including over two million children

Ian Jones
Thursday 08 June 2023 16:34 BST
Nearly one in four pupils at state schools in England is now eligible for free school meals (David Jones/PA)
Nearly one in four pupils at state schools in England is now eligible for free school meals (David Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

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Nearly one in four pupils at state schools in England is now eligible for free school meals. Eligibility stood at 23.8 per cent of all pupils in January this year, the equivalent of two million children – up from 22.5 per cent, or 1.9 million, in January 2022.

The figure has increased every year since January 2018, when it stood at 13.6 per cent or 1.1 million, according to data published by the Department for Education (DfE).

Children in state-funded schools in England can receive free meals if a parent or carer is receiving one of a number of benefits, including Universal Credit, child tax credits or income support.

Free meals can also be available to households unable to claim benefits but which meet certain criteria, such as children of work visa holders or families holding a British National Overseas passport who have moved to the UK from Hong Kong.

All pupils who have become eligible for free school meals since April 1 2018 will remain eligible until March 2025 as part of protections introduced during the roll-out of Universal Credit – a factor that the DfE says is likely to have contributed to the ongoing increase.

However, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has pointed out that child poverty has also been rising. In the 2021-22 period, 350,000 more children were pulled into relative poverty. This brought their estimate of the number of children living in poverty in the UK to 4.2 million – 29 per cent of all children.

The proportion of pupils eligible for free meals is typically higher in state-funded primary schools than secondary schools and the latest figures confirm this trend, at 24 per cent and 22.7 per cent respectively.

There are also sharp differences in eligibility across regions of England and ethnic groups.

The highest rate is for north-east England, where 30.4 per cent of all state-funded pupils are eligible for free school meals, while the lowest is south-east England at 18.8 per cent.

When comparing the figures by ethnicity, rates are highest among pupils identifying as white Traveller of Irish heritage (64.7 per cent), white Gypsy/Roma (54.8 per cent), mixed white and black Caribbean (43.4 per cent) and black Caribbean (42.8 per cent).

Rates are lowest among pupils of Indian (7.4 per cent) and Chinese (7.8 per cent) ethnicity.

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