SCHOOL attendance among pupils on free school meals (FSMs) in Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East, was much lower than that of their peers before the Easter break, figures show.

Teachers’ unions say the Government must do more to help disadvantaged families who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pupils across England returned to classrooms from March 8, apart from those unable to attend due to Covid-19 or extremely vulnerable children who are still shielding.

Department for Education figures reveal 91.2 per cent of pupils were being taught on site at state schools in Cheshire West and Chester on March 25 – the last snapshot of attendance taken before many schools across England finished their spring terms.

But this dropped to just 85.1 per cent for students eligible for FSMs, which are available to children who receive – or whose parents receive – certain government benefits.

Across Cheshire East, these figures dropped from 91.5 per cent on March 25 to 85.6 per cent for children eligible for FSMs.

Nationally, overall attendance was 90 per cent on March 25, while for FSM-eligible students it was 86 per cent.

Attendance levels among pupils eligible for FSMs is typically below that for others, said the DfE, with pre-pandemic data showing lower rates for the group.

But the National Education Union said Covid-19 has compounded the challenges facing disadvantaged families, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: "The pandemic has shone a light on the realities of poverty in the UK, with many thousands of children added to the dreadful statistics over the past year.

"Clearly, the Government must redouble its efforts to support disadvantaged families, children on FSMs, and address the wider challenges they face."

At primary schools in Cheshire West and Chester, overall attendance was 92.3 per cent, compared to 88.6 per cent for those on FSMs, while at secondary schools, the figures were 90.4 per cent and 80.8 per cent respectively.

Meanwhile, at primary schools in Cheshire East, overall attendance was 94.8 per cent, compared to 90.1 per cent for those on FSMs, while at secondary schools, the figures were 88 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

A DfE spokeswoman said: "Schools are the best place for children’s education and wellbeing, and we want to encourage all children eligible for FSMs to attend.

"We have made sure that throughout the pandemic schools have continued to accept applications for FSMs, providing meals to anyone who becomes newly eligible, including while pupils were learning remotely."

She added that the Government has committed to extending the Breakfast Clubs programme for disadvantaged pupils over the next two years, and other schemes to help children out of term time.