AROUND one in five pupils in Somerset are receiving free school meals as thousands more became eligible during the pandemic, figures show.

The Association of School and College Leaders said the coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty across England, and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.

Department for Education figures show 12,754 children in Somerset were eligible for free school meals in January – 18 percent of all state school pupils in the area.

This was up from 15 percent the year before, and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.

In Somerset, 2,570 children became eligible between March 23 last year, when the first national lockdown began, and January this year, though the DfE said some may have been previously eligible at other times.

Of the children, 1,897 went to primary schools, 618 to secondary schools, 52 to special schools and three in pupil referral units.

Across England, 1.74 million pupils (21 percent) were eligible for free school meals in January, up from 1.44 million in the same month in 2020.

Around 427,000 pupils had a free school meal eligibility start date after the first lockdown – compared to 292,000 for the same period a year previously.

Children are entitled to free school meals if their parent or carer is on benefits, including income support, or receiving Universal Credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

The ASCL said the increase in free school meal eligibility illustrates the financial impact of the pandemic on families.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the organisation, said: “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus.

"The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the Government.”

The DfE figures also show how free school meal coverage compares in the 196 state schools in Somerset with at least 100 pupils.

Hamp Academy – which is a mixed sex primary school in Bridgwater Hamp – had the highest proportion in the area, with 46.1 percent of pupils eligible.

At the other end of the scale, was Chewton Mendip Church of England VA Primary School, with just 2.6 percent of the children at the mixed sex primary school receiving free school meals.

The school leaders' union NAHT said the Government can no longer ignore the evidence of the rise in the number of children getting free school meals.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: "This is real money, affecting real children’s lives.

“If the Government doesn’t take action, they will be abandoning those children most in need at the most critical time.”

The Department for Education said it was providing a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years.

A spokesperson added: "School leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3 billion in total, to further support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.”