One in five children in Cornwall is now eligible for free school meals and number keeps rising

One in five children in Cornwall are eligible for free school meals. A teaching union says the number is shocking and raised concerns that free meals are still not reaching all those who need them.

Cornwall had 15,099 state school pupils eligible for free school meals (FSMs) this January, Department for Education (DfE) data shows. That was up from the 13,927 counted the previous year and nearly double the 8,137 recorded in 2016, the earliest year with available figures.

It means that 20.2% of all pupils in the county were eligible for free meals. Nationally, the figure rose by 160,000 over the year, to around 1.9 million (22.5%). Some of the rise is due to rules meaning children can continue to claim FSMs even if a change in their family circumstances would otherwise stop them being eligible.

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But the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the pandemic is also driving the increase, as more families are affected by illness and job losses. Julie McCulloch, director of policy at ASCL, said: “It is shocking that in one of the world’s richest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for FSMs, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances.

“Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help. FSM eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%. ”

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ASCL and other organizations are campaigning for all children from families on Universal Credit (UC) to be able to get FSMs. Currently, a household on UC in England must earn less than £ 7,400 a year. It is hard to work out how many more children in Cornwall would benefit from FSMs if they were made more widely available.

Department for Work and Pensions figures show there were at least 31,358 children in families on UC in February. However, that will include some very young children and some over-16s who would not be able to claim free school meals.

It will also include children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 who are already eligible for free meals, as the offer is universal for those age groups, regardless of family income. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 800,000 children living in poverty across England are missing out on FSMs due to restrictive eligibility criteria.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Over 1.9 million children are now eligible for FSMs, and we communicate regularly with schools and councils so they know what is available for these children. We know millions of families are struggling with the rising cost of living, which is why we are providing over £ 37 billion to target those with the greatest need. Our National School Breakfast Program and the Holiday Activities and Food program are also benefiting children across the country. ”

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