It is estimated by charities that approximately 800,000 or more children in the UK currently experiencing poverty do not qualify for the free school meals scheme.
According to government statistics, nearly two million children in the UK are eligible for free school meals - a rise on previous years, thought to be caused by the pandemic and other economical strains.
This amounts to almost 23 percent of all pupils in the UK - up by 2.1 percent from 2021, and this is seen as a strong reflection of the impact of the cost of living crisis.
The governments free school meals scheme is offered to disadvantaged pupils / children from the UK's lower-income families.
Charities are concerned that this isn't enough - and not all children in poverty are being covered, with estimates being that approximately 800,000 (or one third) - are currently not qualifying for support.
There has been national calls from unions and former education secretaries asking for the eligibility criteria to be relaxed, and expanded to fit a wider range of children whose families receive universal credit.
The Department for Education's latest statistics provide an insiders look into the varying levels of disadvantage within schools in the UK.
Reports discovered by School-Suppliers.co.uk show that at least 22.5 percent (which translates into approximately 1.9 million pupils) were eligible for support with free school meals in January 2022.
This is a major rise of roughly 160,000 pupils when compared to the year prior - when just 20.8 percent (or 1.74 million) pupils were eligible.
The director of policy at The Association of School and College Leaders (Julie McCulloch) remarked that "it's shocking - one of the world's wealthiest economies is seeing "a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances".
Julie then continued with: “What's 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 per cent of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30 per cent.”
Among others, her union has written to the chancellor to suggest that all families on universal credit receive eligibility for free school meals.
The general secretary of the NAHT union (Paul Whiteman), expressed that he is calling for the same extension of eligibility. “It's clear that the pressures of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis has driven more families and children into poverty".
The shadow schools minister (Stephen Morgan), remarked on the rise in the number of children eligible for free school meals as “alarming” and “symptomatic of a cost of living crisis made worse by Downing Street”.
As a response, the government has advised that the percentage of children participating in the free school meals scheme was already increasing prior to the pandemic. However, the largest jump seen in years was when Covid first struck.
The latest increases in statistics are falling back in-line with those seen prior to the pandemic.
A recorded rise has been noted in all schools across the UK - with the greatest increase in numbers happening in London, and the West Midlands. The largest overall proportion of children eligible is currently in the North East of England.
The general consensus is that free school meals eligibility should be extended to every child from a family in receipt of universal credit, with auto-enrolment.
It is estimated by The Child Poverty Action Group that many children did not qualify for free school meals despite living in poverty - this is due to the £7,400 per year income threshold for individuals or families on universal credit. As a result of this, it is thought that one in three children in poverty are shut off from free school meals.
There has long been an attainment gap with disadvantaged pupils compared to their well-off peers, but this has now been widened due to inequalities worsened by the global pandemic.
More must be done to provide children experiencing poverty with equal opportunities and resources - so that no child is left behind in the future.