The number of children eligible for free school meals in England has risen again in the past year, new figures have shown.
The figures show that 22.5% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, up from 20.8% in 2021. This is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils, taking the number to just under 1.9 million children.
All regions in England have seen an increase in eligibility from the previous year, although the North East has the highest rate at 29.1%. The South East has the lowest number of pupils eligible for free school meals at 17.6%.
The Association of School and College Leaders warned the current eligibility does not capture all the children who need help as child poverty is around 30%.
'It is shocking that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances,' said Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders.
'We recognise that this rise is at least partly due to transitional protections over a change in benefit payments which are linked to eligibility, but it is also likely that we are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic on many families affected by illness and job losses. Their circumstances will become even more severe because of the cost-of-living crisis.'
The association and trade unions are calling for all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals.