A QUARTER of children in Dudley are eligible for free school meals, new figures show.

Across England, a record number of children were eligible to receive free school meals as of January, but education sector leaders said the numbers were just “the tip of the iceberg”, as some youngsters living in poverty are missing out on them.

Department for Education figures show there were 12,561 school children in Dudley meeting the eligibility criteria for free school meals at the start of the year, equivalent to 26 per cent of all pupils in the area.

This was 424 more than in January 2023 and a record number in the past nine years.

Children in state schools in England can receive free meals if a parent or carer is receiving one of several benefits, including Jobseeker’s Allowance, child tax credits or income support.

Parents on Universal Credit can also qualify for free school meals if their household income is less than £7,400 a year.

Nationally, the benefit was available to nearly 2.1 million children, or 24.6 per cent of all pupils – up from 23.8 per cent in the previous year.

There were sharp differences in eligibility for free school meals across regions of the country. The highest rate was for the North East, where 31.2 per cent of all state school pupils were eligible, while the lowest was the South East at 19.7 per cent. In the West Midlands, 28.9 per cent met the criteria.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Free school meals offer a vital safety net for families and their children, and while these figures shine a light on the numbers who are struggling right now, they are sadly just the tip of the iceberg.

“The very low-income cap of £7,400 for free school meals means some children living in poverty are missing out, and it is appalling that this cap has not been increased with inflation since it was introduced six years ago.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust charity, said: “It’s appalling that there are record numbers of children eligible for free school meals, indicating rising poverty.”

He warned the true need for free school meals goes far beyond current eligibility criteria.

The figures also show not every child eligible for free school meals received them. In Dudley, just 78.4 per cent of the eligible pupils were in receipt of free school meals.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The increase in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals reflects the very difficult financial situations that many families are facing.

“What’s even more concerning is we know that there are hundreds of thousands of children who are living in poverty but are not currently eligible, as well as significant numbers of pupils who are eligible but are not currently making use of the scheme.”

Separate figures from a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) survey have revealed nearly one in three primary school teachers say more pupils are showing up to class hungry.

From the teachers surveyed, 40 per cent also said the number of pupils coming into school without adequate clothing, such as proper uniform or a winter coat, had increased.

The NFER is calling for the eligibility criteria for free school meals to be extended to ensure more pupils can benefit, as well as targeted financial support to help schools address pupils’ wellbeing needs.