One in five pupils are now eligible for free school meals (stock photo) (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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More than 420,000 children in England have become eligible for free school meals since the start of first lockdown.
The annual schools census revealed a surge in free lunch provision, with one in five of all pupils (20.8%) in England entitled to help in January 2021 compared to 1.44 million (17.3%) the previous year.
Some 427,000 pupils qualifying for free school meals in January 2021 have become eligible since the start of the first lockdown on March 23 – in a sign of the impact of the pandemic on families.
More than 100,000 children became eligible between October and January – leading to criticism over changes in schools funding for the poorest children.
Children in the North East were the most likely to be receiving free school meals, where 27.5% of children are eligible followed by 24.5% in the West Midlands.
In the South East, 16% of kids qualified for the benefit, with 16.7% in the East of England and 17.4% in the South West.
The Government has faced criticism over free school meals provision during the pandemic
(Image: Getty Images)
The Government has come under sustained criticism over its free school meals policy during the pandemic, which included embarrassing u-turns over holiday provision due to a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
A Covid Grant Scheme, which allows councils to help low-income families outside of term time, is being used over the summer instead of a blanket policy.
Shadow Children's Minister Tulip Siddiq said thousands more families were reliant on free school meals yet blanket provision was not being extended over the holidays.
She added: “The number of children on free school meals was rising even before the pandemic as a decade of Conservative governments piled pressure on families’ budgets.”
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the surge laid bare the financial hit to family finances from the pandemic.
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He 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.
"This is a crucial part of educational as well as societal recovery because children are much more likely to learn effectively if they are not struggling with the impact of financial hardship."
Mr Barton also accused the Government of short-changing schools with tweaks to the way pupil premium cash is awarded.
Instead of basing the allocation on pupils eligible in January as it usually does, the DfE is using data from a census carried out last October.
"These statistics show that the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by 100,000 in this period which indicates a very large funding hole," he said.
"Whatever the motivation for this change in the rules the result is nothing short of shameful.”
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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "Government can no longer ignore the concrete evidence of the rise in children eligible for free school meals, nor can they try to explain it away as a 'technicality'. This is real money, affecting real children's lives.
"They must come clean about how much they have saved with this change, and they must put that money back into school budgets immediately."
He added: "If the Government doesn't take action, they will be abandoning those children most in need at the most critical time."