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Big rise in number of children on free school meals

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The number of children eligible for free school meals has risen by 160,000 in just a year, taking the total to nearly two million pupils.

In January 2022, 1.9 million pupils were eligible for free school meals – a fifth (22.5%) of all pupils in England.

This is an increase of nearly 160,000 children in the year from January 2021, when the figure stood at 1.74 million, or 20.8% of all pupils.

The latest statistics from the government revealed the highest eligibility rates were seen in the North East where 29.1% are eligible for FSM, followed by the West Midlands with 26.5%.

London and the West Midlands have seen the largest increase of two percentage points over the 2021 rates.

By contrast, 17.6% of pupils are eligible for FSM in the South East and 18.2% of pupils are eligible in the East of England. However, all regions have shown some increase from 2021.

The number of children on FSM has been increasing since before the Covid-19 pandemic, up from 13.6% in January 2018, to 15.4% in January 2019, 17.3% in 2020.

‘Circumstances more severe because of the cost-of-living crisis’

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is shocking that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances.

We recognise that this rise is at least partly due to transitional protections over a change in benefit payments which are linked to eligibility, but it is also likely that we are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic on many families affected by illness and job losses. Their circumstances will become even more severe because of the cost-of-living crisis.”

“Even more shocking is the fact 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%.”

McCulloch added that it, along with other organisations, are calling for all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals in order to extend this support to all those in need.

“But the government must also recognise the pressing need to do more for these children and their families in general.

“It is simply unacceptable that so many young people live in such difficult circumstances, and it has a huge impact on their education as they are less likely to be ready to learn if their families are struggling to provide them with basics such as a nutritious diet,” she said.

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