More than two million children are now eligible for means-tested free school meals, government data shows.
Schools, pupils and their characteristics statistics published by the Department for Education shows 2,019,509 pupils, 23.8 per cent of the entire school population, are now eligible for free lunches because of their family income.
This is up 6 per cent on last January, and 40 per cent higher than in January 2020.
Only the children of those on certain benefits whose household income is below £7,400 are eligible to claim the meals.
The DfE said the increasing numbers could be explained in-part by transitional arrangements the government put in place when moving people from the old benefits system to universal credit.
But child poverty levels are also rising. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 350,000 more children were pulled into relative poverty, which means after housing costs are taken into account, in the 2021-22 year.
Free school meals eligibility continues to be much higher among children in alternative provision (57.8 per cent) and special schools (46 per cent).
Today’s data shows the total number of children in schools in England increased by 0.8 per cent to just over nine million this January.
This was driven by an increase of 1.8 per cent in the secondary school population, while the number of primary age pupils fell by 0.2 per cent.
Secondary pupil numbers are projected to continue to rise until 2024 before dropping.
The number of pupils in special schools has increased by 5 per cent, to 149,100, “continuing the trend of increases seen in recent years”, the DfE said.
And while the number of pupils in state-funded AP schools has increased by 13 per cent to 13,200, officials said this followed a decrease of 9 per cent in the year before, and was still lower than pre pandemic levels.