Lancashire school has one of the highest rates of pupils on free school meals in England
One county school has among largest percentage of pupils in the country receiving free meals
A school in Lancashire has a higher rate of pupils eligible for free school meals than almost anywhere else in the country, figures show.
The Association of School and College Leaders said the coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty across England, and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.
Department for Education figures show 35,555 children in Lancashire were eligible for free school meals in January – 20 per cent of all state school pupils in the area.
Of the 514 schools with at least 100 pupils, St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary School, a Voluntary Academy had the highest proportion, with 77.8 per cent of pupils eligible.
The mixed sex primary school in Irwell had one of the highest rates in England.
At the other end of the scale there were eight schools in Lancashire where none of the children were receiving free school meals.
In Lancashire, 8,153 children became eligible between March 23 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January, though the DfE said some may have been previously eligible at other times.
Of the children, 5,771 went to primary schools, 2,140 to secondary schools, 201 to special schools and 41 in pupil referral units.
Across England, 1.74m pupils (21 per cent) were eligible for free school meals in January, up from 1.44m in the same month in 2020.
Around 427,000 pupils had a free school meal eligibility start date after the first lockdown – compared to 292,000 for the same period a year previously.
Children are entitled to free school meals if their parent or carer is on benefits, including income support or receiving Universal Credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.
The ASCL said the increase in free school meal eligibility illustrates the financial impact of the pandemic on families.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the organisation, said: “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus.
“The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the Government.”
The DfE figures show that the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in Lancashire was up from 17 per cent the year before, and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.
The school leaders’ union NAHT said the Government can no longer ignore the evidence of the rise in the number of children getting free school meals.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: “This is real money, affecting real children’s lives.
“If the Government doesn’t take action, they will be abandoning those children most in need at the most critical time.”
The Department for Education said it was providing a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years.
A spokeswoman added: “School leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn in total, to further support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.”