MORE pupils in Dorset are claiming free school meals than five years ago, despite a significant drop across England as a whole.

New figures from the Department for Education show that 1,153 more children in the Dorset County Council area's state primaries and secondaries were receiving free school meals in January this year than in 2013.

Five years ago, 12 per cent of Dorset's nursery and primary school children were claiming free school meals. By January this year, that had increased to 13.1 per cent.

Free school meals were also claimed by more secondary school children in Dorset this year, from 9.7 per cent in 2013 to 12.1 per cent this year.

However in Bournemouth and Poole the changes reflect the national trend, with 541 fewer children in the former borough's state primaries and secondaries receiving the meals in January this year than in 2013, despite overall growth in numbers.

In Poole there were 78 fewer children claiming meals.

As the number of benefit claimants in England has dropped in recent years, thousands of children have lost access to free meals at school lunchtimes.

The Child Poverty Action Group claims the drop could leave some children without their only hot meal of the day.

Alison Garnham, the charity's chief executive said: “At a time when more children are growing up in poverty, fewer are getting the help they need with free school meals. Out of a class of 30 kids, nine are growing up in poverty and six of these have working parents.

"When parents earn just above the threshold for a free meal children are at risk of losing what might be their only hot balanced meal of the day.

"School meals should be free for all as an important part of the school day – we don’t see patients in hospital being means tested before they are given a meal.

"At the very least, the rules must be changed so that all families entitled to Universal Credit get free school meals, including many working families.”

Across England, according to the figures, 290,000 fewer pupils receive free school meals than would have in 2013.

In February, the Government announced that children in England whose parents received Universal Credit and earned up to £7,400 would be eligible for free school meals from 2021.

Think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that this means 50,000 more children will be entitled to the meals in the future, but said 160,000 children who currently receive them could miss out.

Education Minister Nadim Zahawi said: "It is right that we must continue to offer the most disadvantaged young people additional help and I am pleased that, following public consultations, we can extend free school meals and the free early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Tens of thousands more children will be entitled to free school meals by 2022 compared to the previous benefits system."

But Labour said they believe the change in rules could result in more than one million fewer children receiving meals in the future than would have been the case before.

Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, said: "It is an absolute scandal that the Conservatives are pressing ahead with a plan that could leave over a million children without a hot meal in schools.

"These plans will create a dangerous cliff-edge in the Universal Credit system and make it harder for families on low incomes to make ends meet."