Record number of Wigan pupils on free school meals

More Wigan pupils are receiving free school meals than ever before, figures show, as campaigners argue the Government should widen the eligibility criteria amidst the cost-of-living crisis.

By Patrick Jack
Saturday, 23rd July 2022, 12:30 pm

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Department for Education figures show 12,257 children in Wigan were eligible for free school meals in January – 25.5 per cent of all state school pupils.

More children are eligible for free school meals

This was up from 23.2 per cent the year before and the highest proportion since comparable records began in 2015-16.

In state-funded special schools, the rate was 44.4 per cent in 2021-22 – the highest of all types of state education which had at least 100 pupils.

This was compared to 0.5 per cent in nursery schools.

Across England, 22.5 per cent of pupils (around 1.9m children) are currently eligible for free school meals – up from 20.8 per cent, and also a record high.

This varied between just nine per cent in Wokingham, but rose as high as 41.1 per cent in Islington.

In a debate in Parliament, Labour called for the scheme to be extended to all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits.

Labour's shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said the cost-of-living crisis was being worsened by "chaotic Conservative government".

He added: “While the Conservatives are distracted by fighting amongst themselves, the perfect storm of soaring food costs, Tory tax hikes and inadequate funding continue to take their toll on families and deepen existing inequalities.

“Labour would be providing breakfast clubs for every child, making sure every child has the best start to the day and the best start to life."

The Association of School and College Leaders said it is "shocking" that one of the world's wealthiest economies saw such a steep rise in the number of youngsters on free school meals.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy, added: “Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help.

"Free school meal eligibility now applies to 22.5 per cent of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30 per cent."

Research conducted by Loughborough University on behalf of the End Child Poverty Coalition reveals 29 per cent of English children were living in relative poverty in 2020-21, down from 30 per cent the year before and the first fall in a decade.

The ECPC said it is likely due to Government measures during the pandemic, such as temporarily increasing universal credit by £20 a week.

In Wigan, 27.5 per cent of youngsters aged 15 and under were living in households with less than 60 per cent of the national median household income after housing costs – down from 29.3 per cent in 2019-20.

The DfE figures show white pupils with traveller of Irish heritage ethnicity were the most likely to get free school meals across England – 63 per cent of all of those in state schools.

In Wigan, the highest rates were among children of black-Caribbean ethnicity – 52.6 per cent.

Ethnicities with fewer than 100 pupils have been removed.

A Government spokesman said it is providing more than £37 billion to help families with rising costs and will continue to keep eligibility under review.