HUGE disparities exist between the numbers of children claiming free meals at Swindon schools, with some catering for hundreds of pupils while other do not provide for any.

Families can apply to the council for the extra help if they receive benefits, including income support, or receive child tax credit and have a yearly income of less than £16,190.

A row broke out in the summer after Government funding for deprived children worked out by free meals was reallocated to be shared with schools in more affluent areas.

A new formula was introduced based on pupil numbers which the council said was fairer and less complex.

However schools led by Churchfields Academy, which had its budget slashed by £300,000, argued that the changes ignored pupils with the greatest need and would force it to make redundancies there.

Nylands Special School in Nythe had the highest demand, with 79.2 per cent of 25 pupils taking free lunches. Seven Fields Primary School in Penhill was next with 40 per cent of 310 children claiming the extra support.

Crowdys Hill special school in Jefferies Avenue also had a high percentage, with 25.8 of 130 pupils being provided for.

Headteacher Pete Crockett said: “Obviously some of our youngsters need longer-term care and in some instances parents are not able to go out and work.

“I am comfortable with the way funding is allocated to the school.”

Mr Crockett added that Crowdys was able to provide a range of support services to pupils and their families through the Government’s Pupil Premium fund, which provides extra money to schools based on eligibility for free school meals.

In contrast, no children claimed free lunches at Bishopstone Church of England Primary School, which has 35 pupils, according to data provided by a Freedom of Information Act request by the Adver.

St Catherine’s Catholic Primary in Upper Stratton had a percentage of 2.6 out of 195 pupils, while at Highworth Warneford 4.7 of 915 pupils claimed meals.

At Isambard Community School in North Swindon, the number was 3.9 per cent, compared with 21.2 at Churchfields in Salcombe Grove, 16.6 at Lydiard Park Academy and 12.9 at Dorcan Technology College. All three schools have around 1,000 students.

Clive Zimmerman, principal at Lydiard Park, said: “We used to be at 10 or 11 per cent two or three years ago and that has risen.

“It is the economic downturn and the fact many families are finding it difficult. The numbers claiming free school meals is down to the catchment areas of schools that serve Swindon, which in the case of my academy includes Toothill and Freshbrook, and Penhill for Swindon Academy.”

He added: “The Pupil Premium replaced a fairly complex system of grants. While the premium has gone up this year it hasn’t quite replaced the amount of money that was there before. There are plans to step it up in increments and it is a transparent system, but it is not quite there yet.”

The number of pupils claiming meals was 29.4 at Swindon Academy, equating to 471 out of 1,605 pupils.

Coun David Renard, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Given that parents can express a preference for a particular school and that over 90 per cent get the school they want, it is not a situation that the schools or local authority has any influence over. That's just the way it works.”