School leaders report rise in pupils not on free meals going hungry

Increasing numbers of children cannot afford lunch and are coming to school without adequate clothes

More than half of school leaders in England are seeing more pupils who cannot afford a meal at lunchtime yet are not eligible for free school meals, according to a survey.

Research by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, found clear signs that the cost of living crisis was increasingly affecting young people’s education, with a growing number of pupils arriving at school tired, cold and hungry.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of state school teachers who took part in the poll said they had seen an increase in the number of pupils who were tired or unable to concentrate, while more than half (54%) said more children were coming to school without adequate clothing, such as a warm winter coat.

More than two-thirds (67%) have students with behaviour issues, 38% said they were seeing growing numbers of children coming to school hungry, and 17% reported an increase in families asking to be referred to food banks.

Despite the cost of living crisis, the government resisted pressure to widen access to free school meals (FSM) in its November budget. According to the Sutton Trust, 52% of senior leaders in state schools saw an increase in the number of non-FSM children unable to afford lunch during the autumn term, rising to 59% of those in the most deprived schools.

In those schools, almost three-quarters of teachers (72%) said financial pressures were affecting the ability of at least a third of their class to succeed in school, with pupils in the north-west, Yorkshire and the north-east more likely to fall into that category than those in the south-east.

Sir Peter Lampl, the founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The facts are stark and shaming. Without radical intervention and increased provision for those who need it most, the cost of living crisis will produce a decline in social mobility, gravely endangering the long-cherished project of levelling up.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools see the impact of child poverty all the time and this dire situation has been made worse by the cost of living crisis. Schools desperately need the government to do more to help these young people and their families.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and we are investing up to £24m in our national school breakfast programme, which provides free breakfasts to children in schools in disadvantaged areas.”

More than 6,200 teachers in schools across England took part in the survey, which was conducted by Teacher Tapp.


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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