Pandemic drives up free school meal numbers

Over 1,500 more school pupils in South Tyneside became eligible for free school meals during the pandemic, new figures show.

Free school meal numbers increase
Free school meal numbers increase

Department for Education figures show 6,424 children in South Tyneside were eligible for free school meals in January – 28% of all state school pupils in the area.

That was up from 25% the year before, and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.

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In South Tyneside, 1,692 children became eligible between March 23 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January.

Of the children, 1,012 went to primary schools, 636 to secondary schools and 37 to special schools. There was also one newly eligible pupil at a nursery and six in pupil referral units.

Nationally, 1.74 million pupils (21%) were eligible for free school meals in January – up from 1.44 million in the same month in 2020.

Around 427,000 pupils had a free school meal eligibility start date after the first lockdown – compared to 292,000 for the same period a year previously.

Children are entitled to free school meals if their parent or carer is on benefits, including income support or receiving Universal Credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, 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.”

The school leaders' union NAHT said the Government can no longer ignore the evidence of the rise in the number of children getting free school meals.

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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: "This is real money, affecting real children’s lives. If the Government doesn’t take action, they will be abandoning those children most in need at the most critical time.”

The Department for Education said it was providing a £14bn increase in school funding over three years.

A spokeswoman added: "School leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn in total, to further support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.”