Schools told not to provide free school meals during February half-term : ukpolitics

Schools will not provide lunch parcels in the half-term holidays next month, the government said this morning, risking another backlash after it was forced into a U-turn on the issue last year.

New school food advice published this morning says schools in England can claim extra vouchers for families who received inadequate lunch parcels, such as those shown on social media.

But it suggests schools should not provide food over the holidays, even though they have done so throughout the pandemic. Lockdown is likely to remain in place during the break.

Marcus Rashford has led a high-profile campaign to end child food poverty Marcus Rashford has led a high-profile campaign to end child food poverty MARK WAUGH/PA Marcus Rashford has led a high-profile campaign to end child food poverty, which forced the government to back down over previous holiday schemes. The footballer’s intervention meant that vouchers were offered over the summer months after a long struggle by charities and educational bodies to make sure this was in place. There was a fresh battle over the October half-term and Christmas holidays before the government relented.

The Department for Education guidance says: “During the period from January 4 to 16, if parents have received an inadequate lunch parcel that does not meet the standard expected, the school will be able to claim retrospectively for a locally arranged voucher.

“Further details on How and when additional costs can be reclaimed will be provided shortly. Valid claims for costs will be met in full.

“Support should be provided each week for benefits-related free school meal pupils at home during the national lockdown and school opening restrictions, from the week beginning 4 January to the week beginning 8 February.”

But it adds: “Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term. There is wider government support in place to support families and children outside of term time through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.”

This is a £170 million scheme announced in November, run by local authorities in England. At least 80 per cent of this is earmarked to give support with food and essential utility costs, until the end of March.

Charities said privately that another backlash was inevitable, with one expert saying “this is just going to fuel the fire”.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told The Times: “It is simply astonishing that the government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing 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.

“Yesterday, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson made public statements about how appalled they were by the quality of food parcels photographed on Twitter. But that is put in the shade by today’s confirmation that free school meals will not go ahead over half-term. These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought.”

Boris Johnson said yesterday that food packages sent to disadvantaged children were a “scandal and a disgrace” as the government reversed its recommendation for schools to distribute parcels instead of vouchers.

The prime minister said that the packages sent to pupils on free school meals were appalling and an “insult to the families that have received them”. He agreed to review the supply chain.

Images of blackened bananas and cheese slices wrapped in clingfilm that families received circulated on social media.

Labour said that the rations broadly matched the requirements set out in government guidance.

Rashford, 23, who has become a champion for children’s nutrition, said that Mr Johnson had assured him yesterday that he was “committed to correcting the issue with the food hampers and that a full review of the supply chain is taking place”.

The government was criticised after a mother tweeted a photo of a package from the caterer Chartwells A mother who had tweeted a photo of a package from the caterer Chartwells, which included two carrots, a tomato, two potatoes, a loaf of bread, cheese slices and a can of beans, said: “I could do more with £30.”

The PoliticsHome website said that another parent received flour and a recipe book that explained how to bake bread rolls and make pasta sauce with 10g of tomato soup powder.

After the row the Department for Education withdrew guidance that “strongly encouraged” schools to take a “food parcel-first approach”, to say that they had the “freedom to decide on the best approach for their pupils’’. Options include lunch parcels, local vouchers or a national voucher scheme. About 75 per cent of schools use vouchers, Mr Johnson said.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has met caterers, including Chartwells, as part of a review. He said that schools could return to the government’s voucher scheme from Monday.

Chartwells, the education catering arm of the food service giant Compass Group, is one of several private companies contracted by schools and local authorities to provide school meals.

Paul Walsh, Compass’s former chairman, who resigned as a director last month, was a member of David Cameron’s business advisory group. He donated £10,000 to the Tories in 2010.

Rashford wrote on Twitter that many vulnerable children had been helped during the pandemic “thanks to the efforts of individuals, businesses, charities, educators and government”. He added, however: “Our eyes are open. Now is the time for a full major review of the free school meal system.”

The Food Foundation also called for a review of the free school meals system, including the eligibility thresholds.

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