Lower attendance recorded among Bedford's free school meal students

Teachers’ unions says Government must do more to help disadvantaged families during pandemic

Monday, 26th April 2021, 4:08 pm
Updated Monday, 26th April 2021, 4:10 pm

School attendance among pupils on free school meals in Bedford was slightly lower than that of their peers before the Easter break, figures show.

Teachers’ unions say the Government must do more to help disadvantaged families who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pupils across England returned to classrooms from March 8, apart from those unable to attend due to Covid-19 or extremely vulnerable children who are still shielding.

Teachers’ unions says Government must do more to help disadvantaged families during pandemic

Department for Education figures reveal 92.5 per cent of pupils were being taught on site at state schools in Bedford on March 25 – the last snapshot of attendance taken before many schools across England finished their spring terms.

But this dropped to 91.4 per cent for students eligible for free school meals (FSMs), which are available to children who receive – or whose parents receive – certain government benefits.

The figures, which include state-funded primary, secondary and special schools, are based on a response rate of around 73 per cent.

Nationally, overall attendance was 90 per cent on March 25, while for FSM-eligible students it was 86 per cent.

Attendance levels among pupils eligible for FSMs is typically below that for others, said the DfE, with pre- pandemic data showing lower rates for the group.

But the National Education Union (NEU) said Covid-19 has compounded the challenges facing disadvantaged families, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The pandemic has shone a light on the realities of poverty in the UK, with many thousands of children added to the dreadful statistics over the past year.”

She added: “Clearly, the Government must redouble its efforts to support disadvantaged families, children on FSMs, and address the wider challenges they face."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also called on ministers to tackle “the scourge of child poverty” in the wake of the pandemic to address inequalities in education and wider society.

At primary schools in Bedford, overall attendance was 94.8 per cent, compared to 93.8 per cent for those on FSMs, while at secondary schools, the figures were 90.1 per cent and 88.6 per cent% respectively.

Magic Breakfast, which provides morning meals to thousands of pupils across the country, said it heard from schools during lockdowns that many families were struggling to put food on the table, and were forced to visit foodbanks for the first time.

Rachael Anderson, head of schools at the charity, said: “Now that schools are fully open again, it is particularly important that children from disadvantaged backgrounds attend, not only from the point of view of catching up on lost learning, but so that they can receive the nutritional benefits from the healthy meals provided at school.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Schools are the best place for children’s education and wellbeing, and we want to encourage all children eligible for FSMs to attend.

“We have made sure that throughout the pandemic schools have continued to accept applications for FSMs, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely.”

She added that the Government has committed to extending the Breakfast Clubs programme for disadvantaged pupils over the next two years, and other schemes to help children out of term time.