Record-breaking numbers of children are getting free school meals in Northamptonshire — but campaigners say it’s not enough as the cost of living crisis grows.
Figures reveal one in six pupils across the county already get free school meals and local councils have recently announced funding for meal vouchers during the upcoming summer holidays using cash from cash from the government’s Household Support Fund.
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Department for Education data shows 10,018 children in West Northamptonshire were eligible for free school meals in January – 15 percent of all state school pupils in the area.
In North Northamptonshire, the figure is 9,935 who are eligible, 17.8 percent of all state school pupils.
Those numbers are below the average across England of 22.5 percent of pupils — around 1.9 million — who are currently eligible for free school meals. That is up from 20.8 percent and the highest rate since comparable records began in 2015-16.
In a debate in Parliament on Tuesday (July 12), Labour called for the scheme to be extended to all children in families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.
Shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said the cost of living crisis is 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 this year.
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 percent of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%."
New research conducted by Loughborough University on behalf of the End Child Poverty Coalition reveals 29 percent of English children were living in relative poverty in 2020-21, although this was down from 30 percent the year before and first fall in a decade.
The ECPC says it is likely due to Government measures during the pandemic, such as the temporary increase in Universal Credit payments by £20 a week which was halted in October.
Across Northamptonshire, around 22.3 percent of youngsters aged 15 and under were living in households with less than 60 percent of the national median household income after housing costs.
A Government spokeswoman said it is providing more than £37 billion to help families with rising costs, and will continue to keep eligibility under review.