According to figures published in May by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased for the first time in many years this January. 2008 had been a low point in terms of numbers of pupils eligible.
Nearly 16 per cent of primary pupils and more than 13 per cent of those in secondary schools are eligible, although not all claim their meals. Leaving aside the difficulties of calculating eligibility (tax changes make this a real issue), the number qualifying is a reflection in part on the state of the economy. In boom times it goes down; when unemployment increases, more pupils become eligible. Thus, the increase recorded this year may be the start of a trend that will affect schools for some years to come.
This recession will not be like those of the 1970s, 1980s or even the 1990s. Then, technological advances were radically altering the landscape of Britain as traditional heavy industries such as coal and shipbuilding either disappeared or shrank to a shadow of their former selves. This recession is likely to be more widespread, with almost all schools facing an increase in demand for free meals.
Eligibility for free school meals has been used as a proxy for deprivation funding to determine the allocation of extra resources. But with modern technology, it should be possible to find out which schools experience sudden increases in demand for school meals, so extra funding is not delayed longer than necessary. Whether free school meals is the best measure of deprivation is open to debate. What is not is that the measure should be as responsive as possible until a new form of funding has been determined.
John Howson is a director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.