13th June, 2022 12:43 pm
The number of children eligible for free school meals has risen in every English region.
Figures from January show 22.5% of pupils now qualify, up from 20.8% a year earlier – an increase of 160,000, to 1.9 million – and 13.6% in 2018.
Another 800,000 children also living in poverty do not qualify for the meals, the Child Poverty Action Group says.
The government says it is spending £37bn to help families with the cost of living.
London and the West Midlands have shown the highest increases – but the North East (29.1%) and West Midlands (26.5%) still have the highest eligibility rates.
Since taking over as the principal of Shirley High School, in Croydon, south London, three years ago, Tyrone Myton has seen a significant rise in the number of his students accessing free school meals.
The 42-year-old former semi-professional footballer, who became a PE teacher after an injury, told BBC News having free meals when he was a pupil had been vital.
“From my own personal experience, sometimes the hot meal that you get at school might be the only one that you get, so it’s important that we are able to offer that to people that can’t always afford it,” he said.
He had been very lucky to have really caring parents but “ultimately, they struggled as well”.
“I come from a council area in south London so I feel that we need to ensure that the gap between the haves and the have-nots doesn’t grow,” Mr Myton said.
His main concern is for children living in poverty who are not eligible.
Those with “access to a free school meal are probably in a better position that those just above the threshold”, he said.
“They really need to look at the criteria,” Mr Myton added.
Last week, 11 educational groups wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, asking for an “urgent” expansion of the scheme, which would make all children from families receiving universal credit eligible.
Currently in England, all state-school pupils can have free school meals during term time, up to Year Two.
Those in Year Three and above living in households receiving income-related benefits such as universal credit also qualify, as long as their annual household income – excluding benefits and after tax – is not above £7,400.
In Northern Ireland, this cap is £14,000.
Scotland and Wales have recently committed to rolling out free school meal provision to all primary pupils.
National Association of Head Teachers president Paul Gosling said 45% of his pupils, at Exeter Road Community Primary School, in Exmouth, Devon, now had free school meals, following a “shocking and stark” rise in poverty.
“The local food bank has given me ’emergency rations’ to pass on to families in crisis,” he said.
“We have also recently noticed a rise in children coming to school tired as they have no heating on at home and find it difficult to sleep on cold nights.”
A Department for Education official said it communicated “regularly with schools and councils so they know what is available for these children”.
“Our National School Breakfast Programme and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme are also benefiting children across the country,” the official added.
Categorised in: News