Schools have again been told by the government not to provide free meals or vouchers to needy pupils over half term, sparking a new row over how to stop children from going hungry.
The government appeared to be setting itself up for another argument with poverty campaigners and unions on Thursday after the Department for Education told headteachers they “do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers”.
Instead, advice from the Department for Education says a general pandemic support fund set up to help low-income families during the holidays would be adequate to cover mealtime needs.
But the National Education Union said disadvantaged children could end up missing out because the fund does not offer blanket provision to every pupil who fits a certain definition of poverty in the same way as free school meals do.
The government has already been forced into a number of U-turns on free school meal provision after high-profile interventions from footballer Marcus Rashford and pressure from the opposition.
This week ministers were criticised after photos emerged on social media of “offensively meagre” food parcels provided to children learning from home.
Boris Johnson condemned the meals, which were provided by contractors, as “disgraceful”, but Labour pointed out that they appeared to match government guidelines on what children should be given.
“It is simply astonishing that the government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic,” said Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, of the latest news about half term.
“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.”
The advice to schools published by the Department for Education says: “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 £170m Covid winter grant fund was set up in early December and aims to support those most in need across England with costs related to food, energy, water bills and other essentials.
It is distributed to families through county councils and unitary authorities. The Department for Work and Pensions says that the scheme should “provide support to a broad cross section of vulnerable households in their area”.
It was set up to “give vulnerable households peace of mind in the run up to Christmas and over the winter months during the pandemic by helping those who need it to have food on the table and other essentials, so every child will be warm and well fed this winter”.
While payments are largely made at the discretion of councils, around 80 per cent of the fund is earmarked for “food and essential utility costs”.
Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s 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.”
Rashford has announced that his organisation, End Child Food Poverty, will be highlighting the support local authorities are providing over the February half term by mapping out different schemes.
Announcing the plans on Twitter, he said: “We will be mapping out the support of local authorities at endchildfoodpoverty.org and I encourage all local authorities to share schemes as soon as they are finalised so we can direct those most in need.
“At the end of last year we faced the issue of local authorities having run out of funds to support the most vulnerable. This needs to be flagged immediately if that is the case this time around.”
Rashford’s tweets were in reply to a notice by the Department for Education which said that the government was supporting “families and children with meals during February half term with the Covid winter grant scheme”.
The scheme, which has been met with criticism from teachers’ unions and council leaders, will mean food will be provided by councils as part of the wider scheme, not through vouchers as during term time.