VULNERABLE children in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are more likely to receive free school meals than five years ago, new figures show.

As more children rely on them nationally, the Children's Society warns that the pandemic has caused "long-term, devastating consequences" for those in low-income families.

Data from the Department of Education shows that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, 57 per cent of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole's children in need were eligible for free school meals, up from 44 per cent at the same point in 2016-17 in the local authority's two predecessors.

A child in need is defined by the Government as a child who needs support from their local authority to maintain a decent standard of development and education.

This includes children with disabilities and special educational needs, young carers, children who have committed crimes, and those with parents in prison.

Free school meals are available to children who have parents receiving benefits or are on incomes of less than £7,400 – so an increase in the number of children on free school meals can be an indicator of declining living standards.

The pandemic coincided with a small year-on-year increase in pupils needing free school meals in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole – between the end of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, four per cent more children became eligible for them.

Azmina Siddique, Policy and Impact Manager at charity The Children's Society, said that the pandemic has been devastating for low-income families.

She said: "While some year-on-year increase in the numbers of people qualifying can be put down to certain protections in the system as Universal Credit is fully rolled out, it is also likely the increase in free school meal uptake is due to growing need."

“Free school meals provide vital help to families – saving them over £400 per child each year – but too many families simply don’t qualify, meaning hundreds of thousands of children are missing out."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure every eligible child has access to free school meals, which is why we have expanded access to them more than any other government in recent decades.”