THE North East has the highest proportion of children eligible for free school meals in the country – and things may only get worse for the region’s youngsters, experts warn.

As families prepare to face an unprecedented cost of living crisis, The Northern Echo can reveal the number of youngsters who can receive free meals has soared by nearly two-thirds in just six years.

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Politicians and campaigners say the stark reality of hardship and poverty is reflected in “heart-breaking” new figures showing a staggering rise in eligibility for our region’s school pupils.

Nearly a third of all state-funded pupils were eligible for free school meals in March, meaning more than 116,000 youngsters relied on their school to provide a meal a day.

That is up from around 71,000 in 2015-16 and significantly higher than England’s average of 22%.

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Echo analysis of shocking Government figures found that more than two-thirds of those studying at pupil referral units and over half of those at special schools were eligible.

And Middlesbrough’s MP Andy McDonald believes there are even more children out there who could go hungry without changes to the eligibility criteria.

His constituency has among the highest proportions of children on free school meals in the country.

Mr McDonald believes higher paid, more secure jobs and the return of the £20 Universal Credit uplift could help to make a difference.

He said: “These figures are heart-breaking and show the stark reality of just how difficult life is for families.

“The rise in the number of eligible children shows we are not making progress in tackling the causes of poverty.”

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Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald

He added: “This is not going to get better any time soon as the cost-of-living crisis means soaring energy bills and increases in food prices.

“We cannot expect our children to be healthy and able to fulfil their learning potential if they do not have enough to eat.”

The director of Schools North East said the figures showed the coronavirus pandemic had “starkly” exacerbated existing levels of hardship in the region.

Chris Zarraga called on the Government to recognise how contextual factors such as disadvantage could impact educational outcomes.

He said: “Schools in our region went into the pandemic already facing some of the highest rates of disadvantage in the country.

“If the Government is serious about levelling up, it must put investing in children and young people at the heart of its recovery plans.”

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More than 1.9 million children in England are now eligible for free school meals – more than a fifth of state-funded pupils and an increase of more than 160,000 since just last year.

The pandemic and changes in policy to allow pupils to maintain their claim if circumstances change have contributed to a national increase in eligibility in recent years, according to Government statisticians.  

A Government spokeswoman said: “We know millions of families are struggling with the rising cost of living, which is why we are providing over £37 billion to target those with the greatest need.”

She said Government-funded school breakfasts and holiday activities were also benefiting children.