Headteachers in England have been told not to provide either free school meal vouchers or food parcels for disadvantaged children over the half-term holiday next month, it has emerged.
With the dust barely settled following a furious row this week over substandard food parcels, the government appeared to be heading into yet another damaging dispute over children going hungry during the holidays.
Fresh guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) published this week states: “Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term.” Instead, it says there is already wider government support available to support families and children outside of term-time through the Covid winter grant scheme.
The government set up the £170m winter package last November, following an earlier intervention by the footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, who has already forced the government into a series of U-turns over free school meals.
The National Education Union (NEU) said, however, that disadvantaged families could end up missing out as a result of switching from provision via schools, to councils.
Kevin Courtney, NEU joint general secretary, 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.”
Watch: Labour shames government over poor free school meals
The Local Government Association (LGA) urged ministers to continue to provide food vouchers to eligible families during half-term, as it did last summer.
Richard Watts, the chair of the LGA’s resources board, said: “During the last full national lockdown government recognised the significant extra pressures on low-income families and extended free school meal provision into the school holidays.
“Government was explicit that the Covid winter grant scheme (CWGS) was not intended to replicate or replace free school meals, but was to enable councils to support low income households, particularly those at risk of food poverty as we moved towards economic recovery.
“Government should provide food vouchers to eligible families during February half-term as it did last summer, with councils using CWGS funding to provide additional support with partners where necessary.”
Courtney warned that transmission rates of Covid-19 were higher than ever and that chopping and changing between services increased the risk of children going hungry, with additional public health risks if parents were having to venture out of the house.
“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,” said Courtney. “But that is put in the shade by today’s confirmation that yet more disruption to free school meals could lie ahead in half-term. These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought.”
“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.
He continued: “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 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.”
The row over half-term meals appeared to have caught No 10 off guard. Asked whether the voucher scheme would continue through half-term, the prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said: “That’s my understanding.”
“There’s three policies we have in this area: the first is the voucher scheme; the second is the Covid winter plan; the third is the Henry Dimbleby-recommended activities and food programme,” she added. “My understanding is that there will be provision through the February half-term through these programmes.”
Stratton also highlighted the government’s response to complaints by Rashford earlier this week about the poor quality of food parcels being distributed during lockdown to children eligible for free school meals. She said the children’s minister Vicky Ford had met the company concerned; and the DfE had set up a helpline for families to report parcels they believed to be unsatisfactory.
Tulip Siddiq, the shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister, said: “Time and time again this government has had to be shamed into providing food for hungry children over school holidays. Stopping free school meals support over half-term will be devastating for many families who are living on the breadline in this pandemic.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “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.”
Prof Greta Defeyter, of Northumbria University, an expert in school food, also called for the national free school meal voucher system to be extended over half-term.
She said: “We are in an emergency situation. Vouchers are a safe and easy option and schools are best placed to know their families.”
Watch: Marcus Rashford insists his child food poverty campaign is only just beginning