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Pupils entitled to free school meals up 233% in five years

By Claire Williamson

The number of children in Northern Ireland entitled to receive free school meals and uniforms has soared dramatically in the past five years, indicating more families are struggling to make ends meet.

In 2012/13, almost 80,000 pupils were entitled to receive free school meals (FSME) and approximately 78,000 were entitled to receive the uniform grant.

This marks a huge increase on 2007/08's figure of almost 24,000 and 53,000 respectively, representing a 233.33% increase in meals and a 47.17% increase in uniforms.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said this increase was caused by two key factors.

The adverse economic conditions since 2007 which have led to a significant increase in the numbers unemployed (from 30,000 in April-June 2007 to 64,000 in April-June 2013) and those claiming benefits.

And secondly, the extension of the FSME eligibility criteria by the then Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in 2010 to include low paid working families for nursery and primary schools.

FSME eligibility generally brings with it entitlement to the school uniform grant.

Now current Education Minister John O'Dowd has extended it to include post-primary pupils.

He encouraged all families entitled to avail of it.

Single mother-of-five Gillian Keenan (27) from west Belfast has three children at primary school.

Gillian works part-time but says it's still a challenge.

"Although you work part-time you still are on the minimum wage. You aren't really that much better off because of other stuff you have to pay for."

She added: "I know I'm not right at the bottom but there are other people I know and that is their proper meal for the day.

"So, I do think more needs to be done and I think it's good that they are stretching it in to the secondary schools as well."

Gillian said she would struggle without the help. "The schools are cracking down on what you are allowed to send in.

"You are trying to work with your budget as well as the school rules as to what is allowed."

From September, children from post-primary schools will be eligible for free school meals in the same way as those at primary or nursery.

This allows an additional 15,000 pupils from low income households to benefit.

Mr O'Dowd said: "There are particular challenges faced by pupils from lower income backgrounds in accessing, participating in and benefiting from a formal education.

"In addition, a child that is hungry cannot concentrate in class and is likely to lag behind its peers if the issue is not addressed.

"We should not underestimate the impact this can have on children's learning and development, on their educational attainment and ultimately on their lifetime opportunities."

In May statistics showed that young Protestant boys from poorer backgrounds are still on the bottom rung of our education ladder.

Of those receiving FSME, 34% of Catholic boys received good GCSE results and 43% of Catholic girls, compared to just 25% of Protestant boys and 33% of Protestant girls.

Fergus Cooper from Save the Children said: "Our work with low income families and our research confirms that many more families are struggling to make ends meet and are making huge sacrifices to try to feed their children. Poverty is no longer solely an issue about unemployment.

"Almost two in every three children living in poverty now in the UK is growing up in a family in which at least one adult is working.

"In the last four years, the cost of living has risen faster than incomes which have stagnated or even fallen."

He added: "The minister's move to extend free school meals entitlement here is both timely and appropriate."

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