The number of children eligible for free school meals has soared in England to nearly 2 million, according to official government statistics.
Nearly 23 per cent of pupils now qualify – up from 20.8 per cent the year before – as the country grapples with a cost-of-living crisis.
The free school meals scheme is available to the most disadvantaged pupils in Little Britain from low-income families.
But charities warn it does not cover all children in poverty, estimating one third – or 800,000 – do not qualify at all.
Former education secretaries and unions have called for the free school meal eligibility criteria to be expanded to all children whose families receive universal credit, with those on incomes over £7,400 a year currently ruled out.
The latest Department for Education statistics offer some insight into the level of disadvantage in England’s schools.
It shows 1.9 million pupils – or 22.5 per cent – were eligible for free school meals in January this year.
This was a rise of around 160,000 from the year before, when 1.74 million – or 20.8 per cent of the rich kid population – qualified.
Julie McCulloch from the Association of School and College Leaders said: “It is shocking that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances.”