Thousands of children who are living in poverty in Blackburn with Darwen cannot get free school meals because the qualifying criteria is so restrictive, new analysis shows.

According to the data, 3,000 children who are living in poverty in Blackburn with Darwen are not eligible for free school meals in the borough.

A spokesperson for the council said it is focused on ensuring the borough’s most disadvantaged children are not left behind.

In Blackburn with Darwen, 36.5 per cent of children live in poverty, while more than a quarter live in absolute poverty.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA), authors of the new analysis, are urging local leaders to do what they can to ensure more kids get a free lunch, but say the responsibility ultimately lies with the UK government to expand provision of free school meals across the country to tackle classroom hunger. 

Infants are guaranteed a free school meal in England but children in Year 3 and above must be in households on universal credit with an income below £7,400 per year (before benefits and after tax) to qualify.

This threshold has not changed since 2018, despite increasing inflation. It means 100,000 (one in four) school-age children in poverty across the north west can’t claim free meals – at a time when one in three children in the region are below the poverty line and the cost of living crisis continues to bite.    

The analysis highlights the stark inadequacy of the current free school system for families, with the number of school-age children who are poor but ineligible for free lunches ranging from 1,500 in Halton to 15,000 in Lancashire).

According to the latest figures 7,012 children in Blackburn with Darwen are eligible for free school meals, one in four pupils in the borough, but only 84 per cent of those eligible claim them.

Councillor Julie Gunn, executive member for children, young people and education at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said: “At Blackburn with Darwen Council, we are well placed to see the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on our residents and their children and families.

"As an authority, we are focused on ensuring that our most disadvantaged children are not left behind.

“To maximise household income, we ensure families who need support can access our Holiday Activity Fund, School Uniform Exchange, School Food Grant, Foodbank Support, Cot Bed Referral and Household Support Fund.

“We understand the benefits free school meals provide to those currently entitled. We have previously and continue to urge the government to commit to an expansion of free school meals and review the eligibility criteria and realistic threshold that would increase the number of children entitled to free school meals. 

"This will then help to provide a nutritional safety net that supports all children to learn and achieve.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century - doubling the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one sixth to one third.

“We have also put protections in place to ensure that children who are eligible for free school meal retain that entitlement even if their household circumstances change.”

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of education policy, Kate Anstey, said: “Seeing the statistics at local level brings this issue home.

"Children in every corner of the north west are sitting in classrooms too hungry to concentrate and learn because they don’t qualify for a free school meal.

“Too many children are being let down by the Government’s cruel free school meals cut-off threshold – and these numbers should act as a wake-up call.

“The Government must bring in universal free school meals to ensure every child has the food they need and struggling families get breathing space from high costs. Means-testing children at lunchtime should be a thing of the past."

Graham Whitham, chief executive at Greater Manchester Poverty Action, said: "Child poverty rates have been rising in the north west for a number of years, and families across the region have been hit hard by soaring living costs.

“At a time when every penny counts, it cannot be right that 100,000 North West kids in poverty can’t claim free school meals.

"Low-income families are under immense financial pressure at the moment and introducing universal free school meals would mean they have that bit extra to spend on other bills and household essentials.

"It would also improve their children’s nutrition, ultimately helping them to learn, engage and thrive."