20 per cent rise in children receiving free school meals since start of pandemic
The number of children receiving free school meals in Cambridgeshire has risen by over 20 per cent since the start of the pandemic.
In February this year there were 12,694 children in the Cambridgeshire County Council area eligible and claiming free school meals, according to data from the council.
As of October that figure had risen to 15,540 children.
That means that as of October 17.4 per cent of all the children enrolled in schools in Cambridgeshire were eligible for and claiming free school meals, compared with 14.82 per cent in January.
The increase of 2.5 percentage points so far this year follows increases over the two previous years. The number of children receiving free school meals in Cambridgeshire was 12.07 per cent in January 2019.
In January 2018 that figure was 9.34 per cent, and 9.49 per cent in January 2017, according to data from the county council.
The figures include maintained schools and academies in Cambridgeshire, but excludes private schools and schools in Peterborough, which has its own local authority and compiles its own statistics.
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A Cambridgeshire County Council report described the increase since January as “significant” and said that it will require around £18 million in additional funding over six years.
Jonathan Lewis, director of education in Cambridgeshire, said: “We understand that the times we are living in continue to be uncertain and challenging, alongside this many families are facing changes to their financial circumstances.
“Usually, we see a rise in free school meal applications during the summer period due to new pupils starting school and moving to the area. However, this year has seen a larger increase in applications and entitlement since March 2020, due to financial circumstances changing during the pandemic.
“We urge any family, who has experienced a significant change in their financial circumstances, to complete an online application to check their eligibility at cambridgeshire.gov.uk/freeschoolmeals.”
It is not clear what is behind the increasing rate of children receiving free school meals in the two years leading up to the pandemic, although a government report on the nationwide increase in the same time period said that “since April 2018, protections have been in place for free school meals eligibility while Universal Credit is introduced nationwide.
This has been the main driver in the increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals as pupils continue to become eligible but fewer pupils stop being eligible.”
The rise throughout most of this year – July’s figures were slightly below June’s before rising again – is likely linked at least in part to the impact of the pandemic.
An economic report commissioned by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and published in September said the fall in economic output in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic across the county is “far exceeding the worst effects of the 2008 recession”.
The report said that modelling estimates Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s economy contracted by £1.39 billion from April 1 to June 30, which equates to a 21.9 per cent annualised rate of decline.
It said the number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants rose by 147 per cent across the county, to just over 3,000 from February to July, compared with an 86 per cent increase nationally.
In the same time period the number of Universal Credit claimants rose by 107 per cent to a “record high” of 60,910, compared to a 90 per cent national increase, according to the report.
Commenting on the increase in the number of children receiving free school meals, Azmina Siddique, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said: “The increase in demand for free school meals since the start of the pandemic is very concerning, however we know it is the families on the lowest incomes who are seeing the worst outcomes from the crisis, so sadly the figures are not surprising.
“Some increases could be explained by ‘transitional protections’, which were designed to protect children who would have otherwise lost their eligibility in the Universal Credit rollout, but many people have also faced income and job losses during the pandemic, so this increase will reflect growing levels of need.
“For many families this will be their first time navigating the social security system, and it’s crucial they are given the support they need.
“What is even more concerning is how many children from low income families are still missing out on this vital support.
“Research by The Children’s Society recently found one in seven parents whose children aren’t receiving free school meals said they’d struggled to cover the costs of their children’s food while at school.
“That is why we are still calling for the government to expand eligibility for free school meals to all children whose parents receive Universal Credit and permanently to children from low-income migrant families.
“We warmly welcomed the recent support given to families to combat holiday hunger – but continue to encourage government to make these long term changes to free school meals eligibility so the scheme serves all the young people who need it most.”