Six national supermarket chains have signed up to the government’s new national voucher scheme for free school meals.

However the government has confirmed that vouchers will not be available during the Easter holidays – despite many schools staying open.

The Department for Education has today confirmed plans, as revealed by Schools Week, to issue £15 weekly vouchers for each pupil entitled to means-tested free meals.

We reported last week that the DfE was upping the amount offered per meal from the £2.30 schools currently receive to £3, in recognition of the fact families will not make the same bulk savings as schools can.

Now the government has  finally revealed how the system will work, and that families will be able to spend the vouchers in Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.

School staff have been critical that some of the more affordable supermarkets, such as Aldi and Lidl, aren’t on the list. The DfE said it was “working to see if additional supermarkets can be added to this list”.

Under the scheme, schools can either continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, or sign up for the vouchers.

Schools will emailed today (March 31) by Edenred, which has been chosen to run the scheme.

Schools will then be able to order vouchers individually online and have a code sent via email to each family or arrange a bulk order of multiple codes and receive an Excel spreadsheet to help them organise sending on to a family.

They can also create an eGift card for a preferred supermarket to be posted to a family if parents cannot get online.

The total value of vouchers available per eligible child per week exceeds the rate paid to schools for free school meals, recognising that families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs.

Vouchers are term-time only

However, the vouchers are available during term-time only, so families will not receive them for the two weeks of the Easter holidays.

Government guidance states schools can continue to provide meals during the holidays – but they will have to pay for it themselves.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said the scheme would be “some relief” to schools forced to make their own local arrangements in recent weeks.

“But let’s be under no illusions. This will be a tough situation for struggling families,” he added.

 Paul Whitman, leader of the NAHT union, said the new system “fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the COVID-19 crisis”.

“There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now.”

According to the government’s latest guidance, issued this morning, the costs of the vouchers will be met centrally by the DfE.

The DfE said it would provide further guidance “shortly” on how it will compensate schools that incur additional costs through “other approaches”.

Schools should continue to pay caterers

The guidance also states that schools should continue paying caterers “as normal” if they believe they are at risk, even if delivery is disrupted or suspended, until “at least the end of June”.

This is in keeping with guidance for all public bodies, issued earlier this month.

However, some caterers have already begun to lay off staff as a result of school closures. Kent Online has reported that Nourish Contract Catering has told a “significant number” of staff they will be laid off until at least the end of June.

The government has also confirmed that schools and local authorities “should continue to accept free school meal applications” from families that become eligible through change of income, or those who were eligible before but did not claim.

“Parents should make contact with the school or local authority, who will verify eligibility and award free school meals,” guidance states.

“No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” said Gavin Williamson, the education secretary.