NEW figures on free school meal eligibility (FSME) suggest Halton is the second most deprived authority nationally at primary school level.

Education officers made the worrying comments at a Children and Young People’s Family Policy and Performance Board meeting on Monday.

A spokeswoman told the committee that while attainment in schools had improved, deprivation figures remained a concern.

The committee heard that ‘new information’ showed Halton was the second most deprived area at primary level based on the soaring number of pupils entitled to free school dinners.

Meanwhile, at secondary school level, the authority ranked marginally higher and came out as ninth most deprived.

The spokeswoman said: “Key stage one we did make really good progress in all areas, and key stage two.

“But we did find out this year that in terms of our cohort, based on the number of pupils who are eligible for free school meals, we are the second most deprived authority nationally at primary, and the ninth most deprived based on free school meal eligibility at secondary

“That is new information to us.”

The figures were revealed during a presentation on next year’s business plan for children, education and social care in Halton.

Council officers identified a number of key priorities and challenges to overcome at a time of increased demand, budget cuts and growing pressures due to the roll out of Universal Credit.

One of the key priorities was reducing the length of time children remain in the care system in Halton.

The committee heard that while fewer children were entering the care system, they were remaining in it for longer, with some staying in care from the age of five to 18.

Officers said they were taking a new, ‘strength-based’ approach towards parents whose children were in care, which would provide the support which focused on strengths to eventually allow more children to return to their families.

Other key priorities included the early years intervention strategy and  reducing exclusion rates, particularity for children with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH).

Education officers revealed that while early years attainment had increased by 4%, Halton was still falling behind nationally and ranked 150th out of 152 authorities.

Initiatives the council are under taking to improve outcomes for children include applying to open a new free school for pupils with SEMH with neighbouring borough St Helens.

They also discussed plans to “upskill” teaching staff to make them more equipped to deal with challenging behaviour.

Meanwhile, eight schools have secured funding via a government Condition Improving fund (CIF bid).