A record number of pupils were eligible to receive free school meals in Blackburn with Darwen this academic year, new figures show.

Department for Education figures show 7,012 pupils were eligible for free school meals in Blackburn with Darwen as of January – up from 6,751 the year before.

It meant 24.9 per cent of all pupils in the area could receive free school meals.

Councillor Julie Gunn, deputy leader and executive member for children, young people and education at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said: “We recently offered grants to all schools across the borough totalling approximately £700,000 to improve the food provision to their most vulnerable pupils including those not already receiving free school meals.

READ MORE: 'There are people on the edge': Support group teams up with foodbank

 “This has led to numerous projects within schools including the setup of breakfast clubs, after school clubs, free fruit, cooked breakfasts during exams and food larders set up within schools as well as some additional support in the holidays for those most in need.

“We as a borough are continuing to work closely with all of these schools to support them wherever possible.

"We are constantly striving to ensure that no child goes hungry and are working towards the ultimate goal of universal free school meals.”

The number of eligible children across England has increased every year since January 2018, when there were 1.1 million (13.6 per cent). This year, the figure rose to 23.8 per cent.

But the Association of School and College Leaders said the figures – which show the number of pupils able to have free school meals has risen to a record two million in England – do not reveal the full scale of the problem due to limits on eligibility.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said the high level of free school meal eligibility should be a "wake-up call about the appallingly high levels of childhood poverty in England".

READ MORE: Go ahead for Longridge high school to increase pupil numbers

Mr Barton said: "Yet these shocking figures in themselves do not reveal the full extent of the problem because there are many more families who are struggling but who do not qualify for free school meal provision as eligibility is limited to those whose household income is less than £7,400 a year."

He urged the Government to extend free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit.

Action for Children said the figures "significantly understate the scale of the problem of children being too hungry to learn because many children in working poor households are not eligible for free school meals".

They added that hundreds of thousands of children in poverty are missing out.

The figures also showed not every child eligible for free school meals actually received them.

In fact, in Blackburn with Darwen, out of the 7,012 eligible pupils, only 5,889 (84 per cent) were in receipt of free school meals.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it had extended eligibility "several times to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century".