A Statistical First Release (SFR), produced by National Statistics was published this week by the new Department for Education. It provides statistical information on schools and pupils and their characteristics, including numbers of pupils, class sizes, pupils with SEN, with English as an Additional Language, Ethnicity, and the numbers eligible for free school meals.
The statistics in this SFR are derived from a Census of all maintained schools in England, taken in January this year. In terms of free school meals, the figures show that 1.2 million children are eligible, an increase of approximately 83,000 since 2009.
In primary schools, 18.5 % of pupils are known to be eligible for free school meals, compared with 17.1% in 2009. In secondary schools, 15.4% are known to be eligible, compared with 14.5% last year.
This year’s rise in eligibility follows on from last year’s rise, and, is likely to be a symptom of the current economic climate. However, for primary schools, at least, it is difficult to make direct comparisons with the 2009 figures because of a free school meals pilot operating in the following LEAs:
In these authorities, extended or universal free school meals are being provided to pupils in maintained primary schools. This immediately changes the eligibility criteria: more, and in some cases, all primary school pupils are eligible. A similar scheme is planned to start in parts of Cumbria, later this year.
The pilot figures are, however likely to explain only a proportion of the increase in eligibility. Income inequality and child poverty are important factors. With cuts in public services expected, these children will suffer the most.
The release of these figures has not received much media attention amidst coverage of the post-election coalition formation and abolition of the DCSF. The Independent reports on the figures, and a virtually identical article can be found in the Telegraph. Meanwhile the Daily Express chose to focus on the issue of English as an Additional Language, and in doing so managed to conflate English as an Additional Language with not being able to speak English properly. The two are not the same. It is true that free school meal data was not the only information reported in this SFR. However, the relative neglect of free school meals, and the decision by some sections of the press to, inaccurately report on figures of non native English speakers is worrying. The press is setting the agenda, focusing on ethnicity, fueling fears over immigration, while ignoring the important issue of child poverty.
Other posts which include free school meals can be found here.