The number of pupils claiming free school meals is continuing to fall in London. However, there is a greater proportion of children in nursery, primary and secondary schools claiming free lunches here than in many other parts of the country.
New data from the Department of Education shows that nearly 17% of London pupils are receiving free school meals in nurseries and primaries – more than two percentage points higher than the average in England.
Only the North East and West Midlands regions have a higher proportion of youngsters on the free meal scheme. In Tower Hamlets and Hackney more than a third of under 11s are receiving free meals. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the only local authority with a higher rate.
In Southwark, a fifth of children are claiming free meals, a slight increase on last year. But the numbers are down in Lewisham and Westminster, and the largest decrease took place in Islington where 29% of pupils are claiming school meal benefits, down from 38% last year, but still the third highest rate in the capital.
The trend is similar among secondary school pupils. On average, 13% of children over 11 are on the free meal scheme across England. The rate is similar in Outer London but significantly higher within inner London, with more than 40% in Tower Hamlets and 30% in Hackney and Islington. In Camden and Lambeth it is around a quarter of secondary school children.
London varies hugely with outer areas pushing the capital average down. Boroughs in the South West score as low or lower than many other parts of the country, with both Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames averaging less than 9% for students below the age of 16 claiming free school meals.
Free school meals are available to children from families who are claiming other types of benefit for unemployment or low income. In 2013 the government extended the scheme so that all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 at state primary schools, ie all children under 8, receive free meals. From year 3 onwards families must register and make a claim.
Entitlement to free school meals is commonly used as an indicator for children living in poverty. But many who are entitled to the benefit do not claim, a reluctance sometimes attached to social stigma. In London this year 215,000 children are judged to be eligible but only 180,000 are receiving free meals.