Free school meals numbers have surged, sparking fears over pupil premium funding.

The number of children eligible for free school meals surged in the first seven months of the Covid-19 pandemic, official figures show.

Census data published by the Department for Education shows an additional 302,397 pupils became eligible for free school meals between the first nationwide lockdown in March and the October school census.

During the same period a year before, numbers increased by 208,500. Last year’s rise was 45 per cent higher, underlining the economic toll of the pandemic on families.

The data is likely to deepen concerns about the scale of funding schools will miss out on as a result of changes to how pupil premium funding is calculated.

The payments are based on free school meal eligibility, and are usually calculated using FSM data from the January census.

Pupil premium shortfall after census changes

However, the government sparked controversy by deciding to use the October figures to allocate cash this year.

While schools will receive extra funding for the pupils newly eligible by October, any children who have faced increased deprivation since then will not be factored into the funding decisions.

The DfE has repeatedly refused to say how much funding schools have missed out on as a result of the change.

A survey by the NAHT school leadership union earlier this month suggested England’s primary schools alone could face a £180 million funding gap.

Campaigner Andy Jolley, who first highlighted the issue after the change was published without fanfare on the last day of autumn term, has estimated the full shortfall could amount to £250 million.

1.63 million children entitled to free school meals

The latest data  shows 19.7 per cent of pupils were eligible for free school meals as of October, up from 17.3 per cent in January 2020. In total, 1.63 million children qualified by the autumn term.

Pupils are entitled to free school meals if their parents or carers receive certain unemployment, illness and low pay-related benefits.

The highest rates of eligibility were in north-east England at 26.3 per cent of pupils. Every region has seen an increase since spring, with the highest jumps in the West Midlands and the north-east.

The figures also showed 96 per cent of open state-funded schools were providing free school meals to those pupils on site as of March 5 this year, shortly before full school re-opening.

Ninety-nine per cent were providing them to pupils learning remotely, with 78 per cent of schools reporting they were using the national voucher scheme.