More than 300,000 children in England have become eligible for free school meals since the first lockdown, new figures reveal.
Data published by the Department for Education on Tuesday revealed a surge in free lunch provision last year, with nearly one in five of all pupils (19.7%) in England entitled to help in October compared to 1.44 million (17.3%) in January 2020.
The new data laid bare the hit on family finances during the pandemic, as 302,400 additional pupils qualified for free school meals between the beginning of lockdown on March 23 and the October census.
This marks an increase of nearly 94,000 children compared to the same period in 2019.
Children in the North East were most likely to be receiving free school meals, with one in four pupils (26.3%) eligible, compared to 15.1% in the South East and 15.7% in the East of England.
Pupils are able to get free school meals in England if their parent or carer is entitled to benefits such as income support or receives universal credit on an income of less than £7,400 a year.
The new figures come after the Government faced sustained criticism over free school meals provision during the pandemic.
A supermarket voucher scheme to replace free school meals in the first lockdown was beset by initial difficulties
Parents faced “unacceptable delays” in receiving vouchers as supplier Edenred’s systems buckled under the volume of calls and emails, a critical report by the Commons Public Account Committee said last month.
Downing Street was then forced to u-turn on its plan to halt free school meal provision in the holidays following a high-profile campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford.
The Edenred voucher scheme was relaunched in January after a national outcry over measly food parcels sent to families in receipt of free school meals.
And in a sign of fresh trouble ahead, the new Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said free school meals should be extended to the summer holidays.
The Covid Winter Grant Scheme, which allows councils to help low-income families outside of term time, is due to end after the Easter holiday.
Meanwhile, separate figures show the number of children in school dropped last week as more pupils were forced to self isolate.
Attendance data shows 9 in 10 (90%) state school pupils were in class on March 25, down from 91% on March 18.
The figures suggest 220,000 pupils had been forced to stay home to isolate on Thursday – up from 169,000 pupils the previous week.