AROUND one in six pupils in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are receiving free school meals as thousands more became eligible during the pandemic, figures show.

The Association of School and College Leaders said the coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty across England, and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.

Department for Education figures show 8,753 children in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole were eligible for free school meals in January – 17 per cent of all state school pupils in the area. This was up from 14 per cent the year before.

In Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, 2,044 children became eligible between March 23, 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January, though the DfE said some may have been previously eligible.

Of the children, 1,459 went to primary schools, 543 to secondary schools, 33 to special schools and nine were in pupil referral units.

Across England, 1.74m pupils (21 per cent) were eligible for free school meals in January, up from 1.44m in the same month in 2020.

Around 427,000 pupils had a free school meal eligibility start date after the first lockdown – compared with 292,000 for the same period a year earlier.

Children are entitled to free school meals if their parent or carer is on benefits, including income support or receiving Universal Credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

The ASCL said the increase in free school meal eligibility illustrates the financial impact of the pandemic on families.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the organisation, said: “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus.

“The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the Government.”

The DfE figures also show how free school meal coverage compares in the 92 state schools in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole with at least 100 pupils.

Tregonwell Academy – which is a mixed sex special school in Littledown & Ilford – had the highest proportion in the area, with 60.3 per cent of pupils eligible.

At the other end of the scale, was Lilliput Church of England Infant School, with just 1.4 per cent of the children at the mixed sex primary school in Penn Hill receiving free school meals.

The DfE said it was providing a £14 billion increase in school funding over three years. A spokeswoman said: “School leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn in total, to further support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.”