Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union

Commenting on the latest guidance on free school meals, published this morning, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:   

"It is simply astonishing that the Government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic. After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again. This week, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson made public statements about how appalled they were by the quality of food parcels shared on Twitter. But that is put in the shade by today's confirmation that yet more disruption to free schools meals could lie ahead in half term. These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought. 

“Transmission rates of Covid-19 are higher than ever. Chopping and changing between services increases the risk of children going hungry, parents having to venture out of the house, and the unnecessary public health risk that would create. If families are to remain at home during what is presently the final week of lockdown, then we need a continuity of access and as little disruption to that effort as possible. 

"No child should wake up feeling anxious about where their next meal is coming from, and even now millions are still waiting for the reinstatement of the national food voucher scheme after weeks of struggling to access food parcels. Suggesting that local councils will be able to recreate a brand new system of supplying Free School Meals for the week of half term using the Covid Winter Grant Scheme is an unnecessary logistical nightmare, and the confusion and chaos this could cause will put millions of children at risk. The anguish, not to mention hunger, this decision could cause is immeasurable. Ministers should hang their heads in shame and, unless they reverse this decision, never again speak of their concern for disadvantaged children. Their actions show very clearly that they do not care." 

A Government spokesperson said: 

“As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half term via councils through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year. 

"Our guidance is clear: schools provide free school meals for eligible pupils during term time. Beyond that, there is wider government support in place to support families and children via the billions of pounds in welfare support we've made available."

Background information:

  • For families facing hardship as a result of coronavirus, further government support has been available since November through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme. Funding is ring-fenced, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and bills, and will cover the period to the end of March 2021. Local Authorities received the funding at the beginning of December 2020.
  • To place the Covid Winter Grant Scheme in context, the cost of providing free school meals to eligible children for two weeks is around £40m based on government data.
  • We know that many schools do not want to deal with cash – especially during a pandemic – so vouchers and food parcels are the most effective and flexible solution. Schools know best what families in their area need. This is why we have provided flexibility of local vouchers which will be reimbursed and backdated to 4 January.
  • The Holiday Activities and Food programme, which has provided healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children, has been expanded across England this year. It will cover Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021, and cost up to £220m. It will be available to children in every local authority in England, building on previous programmes – including this summers, which supported around 50,000 children across 17 local authorities.
  • We have also provided £35 million to support schools in disadvantaged areas provide breakfasts to those who need it, and £32 million for food distribution charities including FareShare.
  • Healthy Start scheme payments are also set to increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021. This scheme supports pregnant women or those with children under four who have a low income and are in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This will help people boost the long-term health of their children.
  • This Government is committed to support the lowest paid families, and has taken significant steps to do so, including raising the living wage, ending the benefit freeze and increasing work incentives.
  • As part of its Plan for Jobs to protect, support and create employment, the government has continued to provide for families to protect, support and create employment.

Sector Response:

NAHT comments on free school meals during half term 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“The government’s constantly changing, badly thought out and last-minute schemes to help with holiday hunger during the Covid crisis are leaving families and children anxious that they literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

"The government must urgently clarify for families how they will be helped during the upcoming half term holiday so they can be assured that they will not go hungry. It is shameful that this is even something we are having to worry about in this country.”

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