“It is shocking that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances.
“We recognise that this rise is at least partly due to transitional protections over a change in benefit payments which are linked to eligibility, but it is also likely that we are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic on many families affected by illness and job losses. Their circumstances will become even more severe because of the cost-of-living crisis.
“Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help. Free school meal eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%.
“We are campaigning, along with other organisations, for all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals in order to extend this support to all those in need.
“But the government must also recognise the pressing need to do more for these children and their families in general.
“It is simply unacceptable that so many young people live in such difficult circumstances, and it has a huge impact on their education as they are less likely to be ready to learn if their families are struggling to provide them with basics such as a nutritious diet.”