VULNERABLE children in Cumbria are more likely to receive free school meals than five years ago, according to new figures.
As more children depend on it nationwide, the Children’s Society warns that the pandemic has caused “devastating long-term consequences” for members of low-income families.
Department for Education data shows that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, 51% of children in Cumbria in need were entitled to free school meals, up from 38% at the same time in 2016-2017 .
A child in need is defined by the government as a child who needs the support of their local authority to maintain a decent level of development and education.
This includes children with disabilities and special educational needs, young carers, children who have committed crimes and those whose parents are in prison.
Free school meals are available for children whose parents are on child benefit or whose income is below £7,400. Thus, an increase in the number of children receiving free school meals may be an indicator of declining living standards.
The pandemic has coincided with a sharp year-on-year increase in the number of pupils needing free school meals in Cumbria – between the end of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, 7% more children became eligible.
The figures cover children in need who do not have a child protection plan and who are not in foster care or adoption.
Last school year, England saw the biggest increase in eligibility for children in need since 2016-17, when figures were first recorded, of 6%.
Nationwide, 57% of children in this category were eligible for free school meals at the end of 2020-21, up from 45% in 2016-2017.
This compares to 21% of the whole school population, up from 14% in 2017. In Cumbria, 15% of all pupils received free school meals, up from 9% in 2017.
Part of the increase could be explained by protections on access to free school meals: since 2018, eligible students remain so for several years, even if their situation changes, for example if their parents no longer receive allowances .
Last year, a report by the Child Poverty Action Group, a charity which fights child poverty, estimated that around 1 million poor children in the UK did not have access to free school meals in due to high eligibility criteria.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We want to ensure that every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access more than any other government in recent years. decades.”