CHILD poverty is increasing as more youngsters have become eligible for free school meals during the pandemic, figures show.

The Association of School and College Leaders said the Covid-19 crisis had worsened child poverty across England and called on the Government to solve it as a top priority.

Department for Education (DfE) figures show 6,662 children in Brighton and Hove were eligible for free school meals in January – 21 per cent of all state school pupils in the area.

This was up from 17 per cent the year before and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.

The Argus: Free school mealsFree school meals

In Brighton and Hove, 1,528 children became eligible between March 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January, though the DfE said some might have been previously eligible at other times.

Of the children, 1,122 went to primary schools, 356 to secondary schools and 26 to special schools. There were also 16 newly eligible pupils at nurseries and eight in pupil referral units.

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

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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 Association of School and College Leaders said the increase in free school meal eligibility illustrates the financial impact of the pandemic on families.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary, said: "Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to Covid-19.

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

The Argus: More children in Brighton and Hove are eligible for free school mealsMore children in Brighton and Hove are eligible for free school meals

The DfE figures also show how free school meal coverage compares in the 65 state schools in Brighton and Hove with at least 100 pupils.

St Mark's CofE Primary School in Manor Road, Brighton had the highest proportion in the area, with 60 per cent of pupils eligible.

At the other end of the scale was Balfour Primary School in Balfour Road, Brighton, with just 7 per cent of the children at the mixed-sex primary school in Preston Park receiving free school meals.

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

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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 provided a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years.

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