New PM must tackle poverty as North East becomes free school meals capital

New Prime Minister Theresa May

New Prime Minister Theresa May

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A schools charity has today called on the incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, to take urgent action on poverty in the North East after new data showed the region is now the free school meals capital of England.

SCHOOLS NorthEast, the regional network of 1,250 schools from Saltburn to the Scottish Border, said a poverty strategy must be the number one priority for the North East to better support struggling families.

Director Mike Parker said: “Poverty is the single greatest barrier to pupil success in the classroom. Unless our region unites against inequality we are damaging the life chances of young people and gambling with the long-term future prosperity of the region.”

The link between poverty and school attainment is telling. Only one in four of white British boys who are eligible for free school meals achieve five-plus A* to C grades at GCSE. The same is true for fewer than one in three of white British girls.

Incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, made education a key element of her inaugural speech on ‘burning injustices’ this week, saying: “If you are a white, working-class boy, you are less likely than anyone else to go to university.”

The latest statistics, collated by respected research analysts Education Datalab using the Government’s annual National Pupil Database, show that 18.4 per cent of pupils in the North East are eligible for, and claiming, free school meals – nearly double the figure for the South East and above the English average of 14.3 per cent.

However, Northumberland is the local-authority area with the smallest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals – just 11.9 per cent, closely followed by North Tyneside at 13.2 per cent.

Overall, the number of children eligible for and claiming free school meals has dropped over the past four years – down 2.5% in the North East and 2.8% nationally. Changes to benefits and the introduction of free school meals to all infants in school will have altered eligibility and the number of families remembering to register children for free school meals once they reach Year 3.

SCHOOLS NorthEast has raised concerns about the wider impact of the high levels of deprivation.

Mr Parker added: “Schools in the North East outperform all other regions in the education they provide to children when you take into account the wider challenges faced including deprivation. While this is commendable, our underfunded educational establishments are continually playing catch-up to more affluent areas.

“We need a targeted strategy for the region to enable schools to focus on supporting North East children to outperform pupils in other parts of the country.”