More children relying on free school meals but fears thousands in Northamptonshire are missing out

Increase reflects growing need but too many families don’t qualify, warns charity chief

By Will Grimond, Data Reporter
Thursday, 21st April 2022, 3:21 pm

Vulnerable children in Northamptonshire are more likely to get free school meals now than five years ago, new figures show.

Department of Education data shows that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, 51 percent of Northamptonshire's children in need were eligible for free school meals — up from 44 percent at the same point in 2016-17.

The government defines a child in need as one needing support from their local authority to maintain a decent standard of development and education.

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In Northamptonshire, 15 percent of all pupils were on free school meals by 2021, compared to 11 percent in 2017.

This includes children with disabilities and special educational needs, young carers, children who have committed crimes and those with parents in prison.

Free school meals are available to children whose parents receive benefits or are on incomes of less than £7,400 – so increases in numbers of children eligible be an indicator of declining living standards.

In Northamptonshire, 15 percent of all pupils were on free school meals, compared to 11 percent in 2017.

The Covid-19 pandemic coincided with a large year-on-year increase in pupils needing free school meals in Northamptonshire. Between the end of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, six percent more children became eligible.

These figures cover children in need who are not in receipt of a children protection plan and are not in foster homes or adoption.

Azmina Siddique, policy and impact manager at charity The Children's Society, says the pandemic has been devastating for low-income families.

She added: “Some year-on-year change can be put down to certain protections in the system as Universal Credit is fully rolled out, but it is also likely the increase in free school meal uptake is due to growing need."

“Free school meals provide vital help to families. But too many simply don’t qualify, meaning hundreds of thousands of children are missing out."

Last year’s report from the Child Poverty Action Group estimated thataround one million UK children in poverty could not get free school meals due to high eligibility criteria.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access to them more than any other government in recent decades.”