Record Number of State School Pupils in England Receiving Free School Meals

A record number of state school pupils in England are receiving free school meals, highlighting significant concerns about child poverty and educational inequality. Official figures also show a sharp rise in the number of students attending special needs schools and increasing teaching vacancies.

Surge in Free School Meal Eligibility

More than 2 million pupils now qualify for free school meals (FSM), an increase of 75,000 in the past year. Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), described the figures as “chilling.”

“Today, a quarter of pupils take free school meals. That is 2.1 million children. In 2015, it was one in seven,” Kebede noted. “Schools do all they can to alleviate the problems children and young people face through poverty, but this should not be happening in the first place. These inequalities do not start and end at the school gates. An incoming government must address child poverty by immediately scrapping the two-child limit and ensuring every child has a free school meal.”

Understated Child Poverty Figures

According to the Department for Education (DfE), 24.6% of state school pupils are eligible for FSM this year, up from 23.8% last year. Children qualify if their parents or carers receive benefits or universal credit and their household’s after-tax income is below £7,400.

Child poverty campaigners argue that these figures understate the true level of need. The Child Poverty Action Group’s analysis suggests that up to 900,000 additional children live in poverty but are ineligible for FSM due to government restrictions.

Increase in Young Carers

There is also rising concern about the number of pupils and young children with caring responsibilities. The DfE data shows that 54,000 pupils identified as young carers this year, up from 39,000 last year, including 21,000 primary school children. Andy McGowan, a policy manager at the Carers Trust, believes the real figure is much higher.

“It is estimated there are actually two young carers in every class. This shows whoever forms the next government needs to urgently prioritize improving young carer identification and support. With persistent absence rates for young carers nearly twice as high as their peers, this is a group of pupils who cannot be ignored,” McGowan stated.

Rising Special Educational Needs

The number of pupils attending state-funded special schools in England has also surged. This year, 157,000 pupils attended special schools, compared to 105,000 in 2015-16. This increase coincides with the growth in children with education, health, and care plans.

Teaching Vacancies and Retention Issues

The government continues to struggle with retaining teachers in state schools. The teaching workforce grew by just 259, while the number of teacher vacancies has jumped since the Covid pandemic, from 1,098 full-time unfilled posts in 2020 to 2,800 in 2023. This issue is exacerbated by the rising pupil population.

Private School Enrollment

Despite reports of declining enrollment in private schools, particularly before the potential imposition of VAT on school fees by a Labour government, the DfE’s figures showed an increase of 1,500 students, bringing the total to 593,000.


The latest data underscores the urgent need for policy interventions to address child poverty and support the educational system. With more pupils relying on free school meals and special educational needs services, and teaching vacancies on the rise, the challenges facing England’s education sector require immediate and comprehensive action.

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