New PM must tackle North East poverty as region becomes the free school meals capital of England

  • Research shows pupils on free school meals are half as likely to achieve 5+ GCSEs at grades A*to C

SCHOOLS NorthEast has called on incoming Prime Minister Theresa May to take urgent action on poverty in the North East after new data showed the region is now the free school meals capital of England.

The regional network of 1,250 schools from Saltburn to the Scottish Border said a poverty strategy must be the number one priority for the North East to better support impoverished families.

Mike Parker, director of SCHOOLS NorthEast, said: “Poverty is the single greatest barrier to pupil success in the classroom. Unless our region unites against inequality we are damaging the life chances of young people and gambling with the long-term future prosperity of the region.”

The link between poverty and school attainment is telling. Only 1 in 4 (24%) of white British boys who are eligible for free school meals achieve 5+ A* to C grade GCSEs. The same is true for fewer than one in three (32%) of white British girls.

Incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, made education a key element of her inaugural speech on ‘burning injustices’ this week, saying: “If you are a white working class boy you are less likely than anyone else to go to university.”

The latest statistics, collated by respected research analysts Education Datalab from the Government’s annual National Pupil Database, show that 18.4% of pupils in the North East are eligible for and claiming Free School Meals (FSM) – nearly double the figure for the South East:

 Region Pupils eligible for and claiming FSM in 2016
North East 18.4%
London 17.6%
West Midlands 17.0%
North West 16.4%
Yorkshire & Humber 15.5%
East 13.1%
South West 11.8%
East Midlands 10.9%
South East 9.9%
England 14.3%

At local authority level, Middlesbrough has the largest proportion of pupils eligible for FSM – 27.5%, making it the 6th worst area for pupil poverty in the country.

Newcastle upon Tyne has the second highest percentage in the region at 23.7%, while Northumberland is the LA area with the smallest proportion of pupils eligible for FSM:

Local Authority area Pupils eligible for and claiming FSM in 2016
Darlington 17.3%
Durham 18.7%
Gateshead 15.7%
Hartlepool 22.1%
Middlesbrough 27.5%
Newcastle upon Tyne 23.7%
North Tyneside 13.2%
Northumberland 11.9%
Redcar and Cleveland 18.5%
South Tyneside 19.1%
Stockton on Tees 18.2%
Sunderland 19.4%

Overall, the number of children eligible for and claiming free school meals has dropped over the past four years –  down 2.5% in the North East and 2.8% nationally. However this takes into account the effect of a change in Government policy to give free school meals to infants in school and changes to benefits which has impacted eligibility. London used to have the highest levels of pupils eligible for and claiming FSM, but there has been a dramatic shift in numbers over the past year, as evidenced by Education Datalab.

SCHOOLS NorthEast has raised concerns about the wider impact of the high levels of deprivation.

Research shows that schools with a higher proportion of children getting free school meals have more teachers without a formal teaching qualification or who are newly qualified, fewer experienced teachers, more teachers without a degree in the subject they are teaching (particularly in maths and science) and higher teacher turnover.

This, along with historic inequalities in funding for the region, contributes to a poorer start in life for pupils in the North East. SCHOOLS NorthEast published findings which show that if all school pupil places in the region were funded at current national levels, this would be the equivalent to £45.6m for the North East.

Mike Parker, Director of SCHOOLS NorthEast, said: “Schools in the North East outperform all other regions in the education they provide to children when you take into account the wider challenges faced including deprivation. While this is commendable, our underfunded educational establishments are continually playing catch up to more affluent areas. We need a targeted strategy for the region to enable schools to focus on supporting North East children to outperform pupils in other parts of the country.”

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