Nearly one in four pupils in England eligible for free school meals

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  • June 8, 2023
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early one in four pupils at state schools in England is now eligible for free school meals, while a record one in five has a first language other than English, new figures show.

Eligibility for free school meals stood at 23.8% of all pupils in January this year, the equivalent of two million children – up from 22.5%, or 1.9 million, in January 2022.

The figure has increased every year since January 2018, when it stood at 13.6% or 1.1 million, according to data published by the Department for Education (DfE).

Children in state-funded schools in England can receive free meals if a parent or carer is receiving one of a number of benefits, including Universal Credit, child tax credits or income support.

Free meals can also be available to households unable to claim benefits but which meet certain criteria, such as children of work visa holders or families holding a British National Overseas passport who have moved to the UK from Hong Kong.

All pupils who have become eligible for free school meals since April 1 2018 will remain eligible until March 2025 as part of protections introduced during the roll-out of Universal Credit – a factor that is likely to have contributed to the ongoing increase.

The proportion of pupils eligible for free meals is typically higher in state-funded primary schools than secondary schools and the latest figures confirm this trend, at 24.0% and 22.7% respectively.

There are also sharp differences in eligibility across regions of England and ethnic groups.

The highest rate is for north-east England, where 30.4% of all state-funded pupils are eligible for free school meals, while the lowest is south-east England at 18.8%.

When comparing the figures by ethnicity, rates are highest among pupils identifying as white Traveller of Irish heritage (64.7%), white Gypsy/Roma (54.8%), mixed white and black Caribbean (43.4%) and black Caribbean (42.8%).

Rates are lowest among pupils of Indian (7.4%) and Chinese (7.8%) ethnicity.

Meanwhile one in five (20.2%) pupils at state-funded schools in England in January 2023 were recorded as having a first language known or believed to be other than English.

The proportion is up from 19.5% in January 2022 and is the highest since the current data began in January 2016, when it stood at 18.0%.

The figures for 2023 vary between primary (22.0%) and secondary schools (18.1%), with even sharper differences across the regions, from a high of 44.0% of pupils in London to 8.3% in north-east England.

A pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if they are exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English.

“This is not a measure of English language proficiency or a good proxy for recent immigration,” the DfE added.

Separate statistics released on Thursday showed almost half of children and young people in need of special educational support waited beyond the 20-week time limit for a new education, health and care (EHC) plan.

The DfE said that of those plans where a decision to issue a new plan was within the 2022 calendar year, 50.7% were issued within the time limit – down from 59.9% in 2021.

This is the lowest level for any year since 2015.