Nearly one in three children in the north-east of England are receiving free school meals (FSM), according to figures that reveal a 10% rise across England, as school leaders say the real level of child poverty is even higher.
The figures released in the Department for Education (DfE) annual school census show that 22.5% of state school pupils are on FSM, up from 20.8% last year, reflecting the increasing number of households receiving universal credit and earning less than £7,400 a year after tax.
Four years ago 13.6% of children were on FSM. That meant fewer than one in seven pupils were eligible. The current rate is one in 4.4.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “Our members have described the rise in poverty in their schools’ communities over the past year as shocking and stark. It is clear that the combined pressures of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis have driven more families and children into poverty.”
While the proportion of children on FSM increased across England, the north-east of England had the highest rate, with 29.1% of pupils eligible, while the north-west, the West Midlands, London, and Yorkshire and the Humber had about 25% of pupils eligible.
The south-east of England had the lowest rate, with 17.6%.
Anna Turley, the chair of the North East Child Poverty Commission, said: “It’s clear that the current threshold for free school meals – which hasn’t changed since 2018 – is totally inadequate, with many thousands of north-east pupils growing up in poverty but unable to receive this vital support.
“That picture is only going to get even worse in the coming months, as families grapple with soaring household bills and even more children face going hungry, with all the obvious consequences for their health and ability to learn.”
The Child Poverty Action Group said based on the latest figures, a further 800,000 children were living in poverty but did not qualify for FSM.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was even more shocking that current eligibility “does not even capture all the children who need help. Free school meal eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%.”
ASCL, the NAHT and other groups have been lobbying the government to widen FSM eligibility to include children from all households receiving universal credit, not just those earning less than £7,400 a year.
More than 50% of Gypsy and Roma pupils were eligible for FSM, as were more than 40% of children from Black Caribbean backgrounds. More than 21% of white British pupils were eligible.
Labour’s Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: “The alarming rise in children eligible for free school meals is symptomatic of a cost of living crisis made worse by Downing Street. Unchecked inflation and Conservative choices to increase taxes are piling the pressure on families and school budgets.”
The DfE said: “We communicate regularly with schools and councils so they know what is available for these children. We know millions of families are struggling with the rising cost of living, which is why we are providing over £37bn to target those with the greatest need.”