'Deeply worrying': Free school meals on the rise in north London
- Credit: PA
Camden has the eighth highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals among local authorities in England.
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show a marked rise during the coronavirus pandemic in the number of pupils on free school meals – a key indicator of the number of families struggling financially.
Nationally, 1.74 million pupils were from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunches – a rise of 21% in the 12 months leading up to January.
In Camden 8,029 pupils were eligible, an increase of 14% – meaning 36% of all pupils in the borough were able to able to receive free school meals.
Rashid Iqbal, chief executive of The Winch, a Camden charity tackling child poverty, called the figures “deeply worrying”.
“Proportionately, more children in Camden are facing poverty than at any time in the last five years,” he said.
“In many state schools in Camden, more than four in 10 children meet the low-income threshold for free school meals.
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“In some schools the figure appears to rise to more than two thirds of eligible pupils.
“Whilst the government has introduced some welcome, but time-limited support through the holiday activity funding, as a country emerging from the pandemic we need a much more robust, credible and inclusive anti-poverty strategy, if we are serious about levelling up children's life chances.
“This includes retaining the essential universal credit lifeline of £20, enhancing the pupil premium for London state schools and widening the eligibility for free school meals.”
Elsewhere in north London, Haringey had 8,710 pupils eligible for free school meals – an increase of 14%. In Barnet the same figure stood at 10,479 students, a rise of 21%.
Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq said: “This huge rise in eligibility for free school meals shows just how devastating this pandemic has been for family budgets.
"Yet the Government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to provide this food support to hungry children throughout the Covid crisis, and ministers are still not guaranteeing free school meals to all children who need them throughout the school holidays.
"It’s time for the government to recognise the scale of the challenge in tackling child food poverty and take action to support families.”
The DfE said pupil premium funding is increasing to more than £2.5 billion this year, and overall school funding has increased to £14 billion over three years.
A spokesperson said: “There are currently around 1.7 million pupils benefiting from a nutritious free school meal through our eligibility criteria.
"We are also continuing to support pupils in disadvantaged areas through our breakfast clubs programme, which we are extending over the next two years.
“Outside of term-time, our expanded Holiday Activities and Food programme is providing thousands of disadvantaged children healthy food and enriching activities in every local authority in England.”
Families able to apply for free school meals include those receiving income support or jobseeker’s and employment allowances.
Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has led the campaign to fight child poverty. A large mural of the England star was unveiled at Highgate Wood school earlier in August.
Many families are set to face further hardship from October 6 when a £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit ends, having been introduced to help claimants weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic.
MPs and charities including Save the Children have called for it to be made permanent.
Labour’s frontbench has said it would “maintain the uplift” if it were in government, and ultimately replace UC with a “fairer” system.
A government spokesperson said: “The temporary uplift to Universal Credit was designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and it has done so.
“Universal Credit will continue to provide a vital safety net and with record vacancies available, alongside the successful vaccination rollout, it’s right that we now focus on our Plan for Jobs, helping claimants to increase their earnings by boosting their skills and getting into work, progressing in work or increasing their hours.”