Huge rise in children eligible for school meals during pandemic, new data reveals

Kathy Oxtoby
Thursday, April 1, 2021

Since the pandemic hit, nearly 200,000 more pupils have become eligible for free school meals, new Government data shows, as children’s shadow minister calls for ‘free school meals support to all who need it’.

Of the 1.63 million pupils who were eligible for school meals in October 2020, 302,400 have become eligible for free school meals since the first national Covid-19 lockdown was announced.
Of the 1.63 million pupils who were eligible for school meals in October 2020, 302,400 have become eligible for free school meals since the first national Covid-19 lockdown was announced.

During the pandemic there has been a huge rise in the number of school children eligible for school meals, new Government data has revealed.

Data published this March (30 March 2021) shows that in October 2020, 1.63 million pupils were eligible for free school meals (19.7 per cent of all pupils). This is an increase of nearly 200,000 pupils since January 2020, when 1.44 million (17.3 per cent) of pupils were eligible. 

Of those 1.63 million pupils, 302,400 have become eligible for free school meals since the first national Covid-19 lockdown was announced. During the same period in 2019, prior to the pandemic, 208,500 children became eligible for free school meals.

‘More timely view’ of free school meals
Data on free school meal eligibility is collected in the Autumn school census but not routinely published. As the most recent official statistics correspond to January 2020 and are prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government said it was publishing this new data to present ‘a more timely view of free school meals in schools in England’.

In England, children in state-funded schools are entitled to receive free school meals if a parent or carer is receiving such benefits as Income Support, and Income-related Employment and Support Allowance. Children in nursery schools are eligible if they meet the criteria and attend for full days. 

The data also shows that of the state-funded schools providing free school meals to remote learning pupils on 5 March 2021, 78 per cent said they were using the national voucher scheme.

However, the scheme has been closed since schools in England reopened on 8 March and is not set to be revived for future school holidays.

Instead, this March, ministers announced an extension of its Covid winter grant scheme for councils and is rolling out its holiday activities and food (HAF) programme to all areas of the country.

But Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, has warned that neither the HAF nor the Covid Winter Grant Scheme guidance directly encourage free school meals to be delivered to all eligible children.

According to guidance on the HAF programme, it should be available for children eligible for free school meals: ‘for the equivalent of at least four hours a day, four days a week, six weeks a year. This would cover four weeks in the summer and a week’s worth of provision in each of the Easter and Christmas holidays in 2021.’

Children will be out of school on holiday for a further 12 weeks this year, but under the proposed structure of the scheme would only receive free school meals and activities for half this time.

The Covid Winter Grant Scheme guidance states that it is ‘not intended to replicate or replace free school meals and authorities should avoid duplicating provision where possible’. 

Responding to the data, Ms Siddiq said: ‘This huge rise in eligibility for free school meals shows just how devastating this pandemic has been for family budgets.

‘Four in five schools were using the national free school meal voucher scheme at the start of the month. Yet Ministers are scrapping this in favour of a scheme that will provide food support for just four days over Easter and create a postcode lottery in provision.’

She called on the Government to guarantee ‘free school meals support to all who need it including through cash payments, rather than allowing children to go hungry over another school holiday’.

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