The number of children in England receiving free school meals has soared to more than 1.7 million, including more than 1 million aged between four and 11, official data shows.
Figures from the annual school census show a rise from 1.44 million, or 17.3% of all pupils, in January last year to 1.74 million, nearly 21%, in January this year.
More than 100,000 of the increase came between October and January, confirming the fears of headteachers that schools would miss out on more than £100m in extra funding through the pupil premium because of the government’s decision to shift the cut-off date for eligibility.
The premium of around £1,000 per child is linked to the number of pupils on free school meals. The Department for Education (DfE) switched to using its October figures to determine pupil premium support rather than the January census, missing out 100,000 newly eligible pupils.
“These latest statistics confirm that recent government changes to how pupil premium funding is allocated will leave many schools with less funding to support their low-income pupils from April this year,” said Jenna Julius, a senior economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research.
“Given the extra financial pressures the pandemic has placed on schools, anything which reduces potential funds, particularly money which schools had been expecting to receive, will make their jobs even tougher.”
Pupils are eligible for free meals if their parents or carers are receiving universal credit with a household income of less than £7,400 a year, or receiving similar benefits.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the change in pupil premium dates was “nothing short of shameful”.
“Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus. The situation is now even worse and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the government,” Barton said.
Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for children, said: “Thousands more families are reliant on free school meals to stop children going hungry, yet the Conservative government is offering food on just 16 of 30 weekdays this summer holiday.”
The DfE figures show considerable regional variation, with around one in four pupils on free school meals in the north-east and West Midlands, compared with fewer than one in six in the south-east.
The census showed a slight increase in the number of children at schools in England, now totalling 8.9 million, with rising numbers in secondary schools.
Separate figures on school admissions showed the number of applications for primary school places fell by 5% in the space of a year. The DfE said several local authorities had advised that a larger than usual number of applications were submitted late and so were not included in the figures. Councils said some parents missed the deadline because it fell in January during the lockdown.
The pandemic may have led to more teachers staying on last year. The total number of teachers employed in state schools in England rose by 7,000 compared with 2019, to more than 460,000. The number leaving the profession fell by 17% to 34,000.
Including support staff and teaching assistants, the state school workforce increased by 17,000 to 963,000 in total.