Social Justice

Fewer kids on free school meals were in classrooms on school return

Lower attendance among children eligible for free school meal showed the "wider challenges" faced by people in poverty, campaigners said

The Government said attendance for children on free school meals is "typically" lower than for others.

The Government said school attendance for children on free school meals is "typically" lower than for others. Image: Pexels

Around 162,000 children eligible for free school meals (FSMs) were absent from school before the Easter holiday, new government figures show, with attendance levels around five per cent lower than that of their better-off peers. 

Campaigners called on the Government to “redouble its efforts” to support low-income families through the pandemic. Department for Education statistics showed around 85 per cent of children in state primary, secondary and special schools who are eligible for free lunches were in classes compared to a national average of 90 per cent.

The figures, recorded on March 25, demonstrate the “wider challenges” faced by disadvantaged families according to Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

England’s schools reopened on March 8 for all children except particularly vulnerable pupils who are still shielding and those who choose to stay home due to Covid-19 concerns.

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 “The pandemic has shone a light on the realities of poverty in the UK, with many thousands of children added to the dreadful statistics over the past year,” Bousted said.

“Clearly, the Government must redouble its efforts to support disadvantaged families, children on FSMs, and address the wider challenges they face.”

The Government said the number of children who qualify for free lunches is “typically lower” than for other pupils, including before the pandemic.

Demand for free school meals soared in lockdown when more than 300,000 children became eligible for free school meals after Covid-19 hit the UK in March last year. Pandemic-driven redundancies, income cuts and increased living costs have pushed families across the country further into hardship.

“Schools are the best place for children’s education and wellbeing, and we want to encourage all children eligible for FSMs to attend,” a government spokesperson said.

“We have made sure that throughout the pandemic schools have continued to accept applications for FSMs, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely.”

A similar attendance gap of roughly five per cent between children eligible for free school meals and those who are not was recorded on April 15 was recorded after the Easter holiday.

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Attendance was even lower among pupils known to have a social worker, dropping to just below 82 per cent overall.

Ministers have committed to extending the breakfast clubs programme for low-income pupils for another two years, the Government spokesperson added.

Rachael Anderson, head of schools at classroom food aid charity Magic Breakfast, said it was “particularly important” for disadvantaged children to attend school to ensure they can benefit nutritionally from the healthy meals on offer.

More than 1.63 million children were eligible for free school meals – meaning their families receive income-based benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit – by October 2020, a 190,000 rise in the number of pupils registered for the free food.

There has been a rise in the number of families forced to turn to food banks during the pandemic. The Trussell Trust gave out 2.5 million emergency food parcels last year – a 1.5 million increase since 2016 – with nearly a million of those going to children, amounting to two every minute.

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