More children than ever before in Norfolk now qualify for free school meals in a statistic described as a "wake-up call" over child poverty.

New figures have shown that more than one in five children in the county are eligible for free school meals - with almost 27,000 pupils able to claim.

The figure is the highest number since records began, with 26,870 children eligible - with the provision costing in the region of £450,000 per week.

And education leaders have warned limits over eligibility may mean the figure is only the tip of the iceberg for childhood poverty in the region.

Dereham Times: Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College LeadersGeoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (Image: Archant)

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said: "This should be a wake-up call about the appallingly high levels of childhood poverty in England.

"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 do not qualify."

Currently, the free meals are only available to households with incomes of less than £7,400 per year.

But Mr Barton has called for them to be extended to any family receiving universal credit.

While figures also show that more than 6,000 children who are eligible currently do not receive the support.

Out of 26,870 eligible pupils, currently, 20,766 receive the meals - meaning 23pc, almost a quarter, have not claimed them.

Dereham Times: Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat councillor. Picture: Jason ByeSteffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat councillor. Picture: Jason Bye (Image: Jason Bye)

County councillor Steffan Aquarone said: "This is dismal news, especially on the back of the Tory-created inflation crisis which has seen rising interest rates hit families hard.

"The saddest truth is that behind these numbers are even more children who are suffering as a result of circumstances that are nothing to do with them.

"It is yet another sign that opportunities in Norfolk are declining."

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour's spokesman for education in Norfolk, said it was a "shameful indictment" of the cost of living crisis.

Dereham Times: Mike Smith-Clare, Labour's spokesman for children's services in educationMike Smith-Clare, Labour's spokesman for children's services in education (Image: Labour Party)He said: "With certain schools having over 70pc of their role eligible, it further proves how children are being made to suffer for the economic failings of this government.

"It's an abomination that children and young people are in many causing having just one meal a day during term time - and it is those children who are then going without in weekends and holidays.

"It is no wonder they are underachieving. This must change - for the sake of all our futures."

Penny Carpenter, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for children's services, said: "The rising cost of living is creating additional pressures for many individuals and families.

Dereham Times: Penny Carpenter, cabinet member for children's servicesPenny Carpenter, cabinet member for children's services (Image: Norfolk County Council)

"Over the last couple of years, we have used the additional household support fund from the government to support individuals and families in Norfolk.

"This includes our cost-of-living voucher scheme for families with children who are eligible for free school meals, alongside wider financial support through the Norfolk Assistance Scheme.

"Through our work with partners, Norfolk now has 17 community supermarkets and this number will rise to 24 by the end of the summer, enabling families to purchase affordable and low-cost food."

In recent years the council has faced criticism over cuts to the provision outside of school term time.

Dereham Times: Opposition councillors walked out of Monday's meeting at County Hall, in objection to the county council's decision not to extend free school meals over the Easter holiday. Food was then delivered to food banks in need.

The stark statistics, published by the Department for Education, show that nationally two million children qualify for the means-tested support measure.

The number of eligible children across England has increased year-on-year every year since January 2018, when there were 1.1m children.

In the past year, since inflation began to soar, the figure has raised by 23.8pc.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said it had extended eligibility in this period "several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past century."