Schools told not to provide free school meals over February half-term

14 January 2021, 15:11 | Updated: 14 January 2021, 21:31

The government has told schools not to provide free meals over the February half-term
The government has told schools not to provide free meals over the February half-term. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Schools have been told not to provide free school meals over the February half-term in new government guidance.

The decision not to provide school children with the £15-a-week vouchers over the break comes after repeated public backlashes and U-turns over free school meals.

New advice published this morning says children who need help over half-term will have access to "wider government support" through the government's new Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

The £170 million funding, announced on 8 November, will go directly to local authorities, but with 80 per cent ring-fenced "to support with food and essential utility costs".

However, the scheme does not appear to offer the same guarantee provided by free school meal vouchers, with it instead relying on councils to "directly help the hardest-hit families" and "identify" those most in need.

Read more: Govt to investigate ‘woefully inadequate’ free school meal parcels

Watch: James O'Brien comforts mum who felt 'ashamed' complaining about parcels

New guidance on the government's website reads: "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.

"This guidance will be regularly reviewed and will expire when schools are no longer asked to limit attendance.

"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."

The government also said councils - who will receive the funding in the coming month - are "best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need" as they have "local ties and knowledge".

Read more: Gavin Williamson 'disgusted' by 'unacceptable' school meals parcel

Watch: James O'Brien's reaction to the 'absolute debacle' of free meal parcels

However, schools in England will be able to claim extra vouchers for families who received inadequate lunch parcels between 4 and 16 January.

Nonetheless, the decision risks the government once again pitting itself against campaigners who forced ministers to U-turn over the issue last summer and ran a successful campaign over the October half-term and Christmas break.

It also comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson both suggested schools could remain closed beyond the next lockdown review in mid-February.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, branded the move "simply astonishing".

He told The Times: “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."

He added that the decision casts a shadow over public statements made by ministers on Wednesday about how appalled they were by food parcels seen on social media.

“These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought,” he said.

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

The prime minister branded them appalling and an “insult to the families that have received them”, before agreeing to review the supply chain.

Children's Minister Vicky Ford said she was "urgently" looking into the matter after one mother posted an image of a £30 parcel which was estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food.

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