AROUND one in six pupils in Essex are receiving free school meals as thousands more became eligible during the pandemic, figures show.

Department for Education figures show 34,855 children in Essex were eligible for free school meals in January – 16 per cent of all state school pupils in the area.

This was up from 13 per cent the year before, and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.

In Essex, 10,001 children became eligible between March 23 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January, though the DfE said some may have been previously eligible at other times.

Of the children, 7,333 went to primary schools, 2,423 to secondary schools, 219 to special schools and 26 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.

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 coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty across England, and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the organisation, said: “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus.

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

The DfE figures also show how free school meal coverage compares in the 514 state schools in Essex with at least 100 pupils.

The Department for Education said it was providing a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years.

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