Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 12:10 UK

More pupils can claim free meals

school meal
More children are now eligible for free school meals

The number of children eligible for free school meals in England has risen by 21,410 - the first annual increase in three years, official figures show.

The 2009 school census reveals a rise from 15.5% to 15.9% in primary schools and from 13.1% to 13.4% in secondary.

The increase has been blamed on job losses in the recession.

This annual profile of the school population also shows that almost one in four primary pupils is now from an ethnic minority.

The census, based on school rolls in January, also shows a further increase in the number of pupils with English as a second language.

Changing populations

In primary schools, 15.2% of pupils speak English as a second language, up from 14.3% last year. Among secondary pupils, there are 11.1% speaking English as a second language, up from 10.6% in 2008.

Eligible for free school meals: Tower Hamlets 47.5%, Wokingham 4.2%
Pupils speaking English as a second language: Newham 73%, Cornwall 1.3%
Ethnic minorities in primary schools: in the 14 inner London boroughs 20% primary pupils are 'white British', in Dorset 93%
Class sizes: The percentage of primary pupils in classes of over 30 has fallen from 13.5% to 12.3%

Including pupils in special schools, it means that there are almost 866,000 pupils in the school system who do not speak English as their first language.

There are wide local variations - in Tower Hamlets, 78% of primary pupils speak English as a second language, while in Cornwall the figure is 1.3%.

The statistics show increases in the percentages of ethnic minority pupils - up from 23.3% to 24.5% in primary schools and from 19.5% to 20.6% in secondary schools.

Across the 14 inner London boroughs, about 80% of primary school pupils are in ethnic categories other than "white British". There are about 51,000 black pupils, 34,100 white British pupils and 33,900 Asian - along with other white and mixed race pupils.

Figures on class sizes show the proportion of pupils being taught in primary classes with more than 30 pupils has fallen - down to 12.3% from 13.5%.

And 6.6% of secondary school pupils were in classes of 31 or more, down slightly from 6.7% on the previous year.

Statements of special education need (SEN) were given to 221,240 pupils (2.7%) across all schools in England in January 2009, down from 2.8% in 2008.

The figures also showed that, since 2005, there has been an increase in the percentage of SEN pupils being placed in special schools or pupil referral units (PRUs) - up from 37.2% in 2005 to 40.5% in 2009.

'Fair chance'

On the growth in free school meal pupils, Kate Green from the Child Poverty Action Group said the effects of the recession and job losses had built up gradually.

Kate Green, Child Poverty Action Group: "Good information for parents is important"

She said unemployment was likely to rise and parents losing their jobs should make sure they were accessing the free meals to which they were entitled.

Families are eligible for free school meals if they have an income, including benefits, below £16,000 per year.

The percentage of primary pupils eligible for free school meals varies widely - from 47.5% in Tower Hamlets to 4.2% in Wokingham.

In June, the government published a child poverty bill which pledged a duty to eradicate child poverty by 2020 with the help of local authorities, the NHS and police.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We're determined not to abandon communities to long-term unemployment and risk generations of families falling into and staying in poverty... every child matters and deserves a fair chance to succeed."

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