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Schools, pupils and their characteristics

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This release contains the latest statistics on school and pupil numbers and their characteristics, including:

  • age
  • gender
  • free school meals (FSM) eligibility
  • English as an additional language
  • ethnicity
  • school characteristics
  • class sizes

The publication combines information from the school census, school level annual school census, general hospital school census and alternative provision census.

Headcount – Total

  • 9,000,031
    • All schools, increase of 88,000 from 2021

Number of schools

  • 24,454
    • All schools in England – increase of 41

Average class size

  • 26.7
    • Infant classes – up from 26.6 in 2021

FSM – Percentage of pupils

  • 22.5
    • Eligible for free school meals – up from 20.8 in 2021

Sector Response

Commenting on the increase in the number of pupils in England eligible for free school meals, Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“It is shocking that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of children eligible for free school meals, and therefore living in extremely difficult financial circumstances.

“We recognise that this rise is at least partly due to transitional protections over a change in benefit payments which are linked to eligibility, but it is also likely that we are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic on many families affected by illness and job losses. Their circumstances will become even more severe because of the cost-of-living crisis.

“Even more shocking is the fact that current eligibility does not even capture all the children who need help. Free school meal eligibility now applies to 22.5% of pupils, but we know that the level of child poverty is about 30%.

“We are campaigning, along with other organisations, for all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals in order to extend this support to all those in need.

“But the government must also recognise the pressing need to do more for these children and their families in general.

“It is simply unacceptable that so many young people live in such difficult circumstances, and it has a huge impact on their education as they are less likely to be ready to learn if their families are struggling to provide them with basics such as a nutritious diet.”

Commenting as the latest data on free school meals shows another rise in the number of children qualifying for support over the last year, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Our members have described the rise in poverty in their schools’ communities over the past year as ‘shocking and stark’. It is clear that the combined pressures of Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have driven more families and children into poverty.

“The children who have newly become eligible for free school meals are disproportionately drawn from more disadvantaged areas and are largely those pupils who already needed more support, which schools are increasingly struggling to give with over stretched budgets and the erosion of the value of pupil premium funding since 2015.

“Additional funding is urgently needed for both educational and pastoral support. Children who are hungry are not ready to learn. Teachers and school leaders are increasingly having to tackle the impact of poverty before they can even start teaching.

“Free school meals eligibility should be extended to every child from a family in receipt of universal credit, with auto-enrolment.

“These children are already the victims of a decade of austerity and the government urgently needs to act to avoid these children becoming an entirely lost generation.”

Commenting on the data, Natalie Perera, Chief Executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:   

“Despite the significant increases to the cost of living and the clear evidence showing the link between poverty and educational attainment, the government has done little to address the root causes of poverty. We have been clear that a concerted, cross-government, child poverty strategy is needed if the government is serious about reducing inequalities and “levelling up”. It is now urgent that the government tackles this.”

Commenting on government data showing a rise in the number of children eligible for Free School Meals, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The number of children eligible for Free School Meals has risen to 1,897,449, an increase of 49% over the 1,270,914 children eligible in 2019.

“Nearly one quarter of school students (22.5%) are now eligible for free schools meals.

“These are appalling figures and a clear indication that the cost-of-living crisis is plunging more and more families into desperate straits – the levelling up agenda has so far gone backward.

“The biggest hindrance to a child succeeding at school is poverty. Our members know all too well the impact poverty has on learning and hunger is one of the worst problems.

“And there are many other children in our schools who are hungry whose families do not qualify for free school meals.

“As a first step to address the inequalities faced by children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the NEU is calling for the expansion of the FSM eligibility criteria to also include all families receiving universal credit.

“For a Government to stand by, when millions of children are going hungry every day, with a school dinner often being the only hot meal they receive, is a record no one can be proud of.”

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