Yesterday the DfE published data showing a rise of pupils eligible for Free Schools Meals (FSM) nationally from 20.8% in 2019 to 22.5% in 2022.
The rise represents just under 1.9 million students, an increase of 160,000 since 2021. The news has been covered by media outlets from the perspective of the North East being the region in most need of FSM, stating that about 1 in 3 students are now eligible for the meals.
The Data in Context
Since 2015/6, the North East has consistently had the highest rates of students eligible for FSM, rising from 18.4% to 29.1% in 2021/22. While all regions have seen an increase in the same period, the North East has seen the largest percentage increase.
The gap between the North East and the South East (where FSM eligibility has consistently been the lowest) has risen from 8.5% to 11.5%.
The DfE data shows that the percentage of pupils with free school meals had already been increasing prior to the pandemic. During the start of the pandemic from January 2020 to 2021, the increase was higher than previous years. The DfE further stated that the increase between 2021 and 2022 is ‘in line with those seen prior to the pandemic’.
Call to MPs ahead of White Paper
Nonetheless, the results are worrying for the North East. Data also can fail to reflect the true number of those in need. The combination of lingering COVID consequences and the cost of living crisis can be devastating for families.
In 2019, Schools North East released its ‘Manifesto for North East Education’, which discussed the causes of the region’s high rate of FSM. The North East has some of the highest levels of long-term disadvantaged students and high-impact deprivation. Despite the large number of pupils now eligible for FSM in the North East, concerns remain that the threshold for qualifying does not fully reflect the needs of the region.
In February, Schools North East joined forces with The North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC), Children North East (CNE) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to write to Ministers and warn the Government that the current FSM system is leaving children behind, despites pledges to ‘level up’ the country.
Anna Turley, Chair of the North East Poverty Commission commented:
“The current threshold for free school meals – which hasn’t changed since 2018 – is totally inadequate, with many thousands of North East pupils growing up in poverty but unable to receive this vital support. That picture is only going to get even worse in the coming months, as families grapple with soaring household bills and even more children face going hungry, with all the obvious consequences for their health and ability to learn.”
Schools North East Director, Chris Zarraga added:
“These figures are a reflection of the long term deprivation that the North East has suffered from. Schools North East are committed to tackling this issue and allowing students in the North East to access the provisions they require to make the most out of their education. It is essential that the Food Strategy White Paper addresses these disparities.”
The government is due to release a White Paper later this month addressing Food Strategy. Campaigners eagerly wait to see if there will be any reform or policy change for FSM and school nutrition.
Next week is British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating Week. Schools can access resources to promote healthy eating and learn more about what their bodies need. Following these worrying statistics, schools can help give students the tools to advocate for themselves and push forward the message of the importance of nutrition.
For further reading about FSM and the North East, you can read the letter to MPs by SNE, NECPC and , CNE and CPAG here:
To find out more about Healthy Eating week, visit https://www.nutrition.org.uk/
To read more on Schools North East’s reaction to Policy, visit Policy (schoolsnortheast.org)
For more news from the North East please follow us @SchoolsNE