Pupils are set to get weekly supermarket vouchers totalling £15 to replace their free school meal entitlements under a new national scheme, Schools Week understands.

But heads have been told the scheme won’t be rolled out until next week. The voucher payments work out at £3 per day – an increase of 70p on the current £2.30 schools are paid to provide meals.

All the major supermarkets are believed to be on board. The government will hire one company to provide the vouchers nationally.

However, it is still not known whether schools will be expected to provide meals for pupils over the Easter holidays.

The government is also under fire for dragging its feet on the voucher scheme announcement. It has now been six days since schools were told the scheme was being developed.

The Department for Education has not responded to a request to confirm the details.

It comes as catering firms are under fire for the quality of food provided for pupils on free school meals.

Peter Overton, head at Easton Church of England Academy, in Bristol, said the food being provided to his school by Chartwells caterers – which included a pack of cooking butter, along with a loaf of bread and a block of cheese and snacks – was “shameful”.

A spokesperson for Chartwells said the company has apologised to Bristol families for the issues providing lunch after they were “forced to use contingency suppliers” amid the short turnaround from closure announcements and difficulties in the food supply chain.

They said they “recognise the provision was not what we’d hoped to supply” and working with councils have “kept our kitchens open and mobilised our supply chain…we are committed to playing our role in the response to coronavirus”.

Julia Hinchliffe said her north Bristol school was provided with 10 slices of bread, five processed cheese slices, five biscuits and five pieces of fruit per pupil, which “falls far below school food standards”.

“Some providers have made a real effort sourcing vegetables, quality protein and enough calories for growing teenagers. I am horrified by the provision, but can do nothing about it.”

The food is provided through the school’s PFI contract, by Caterlink, who apologised the service “did not meet our usual high standards”.

Neil Fuller, Caterlink’s managing director, added they have contacted the school to discuss revising the lunchtime provision.

Caterers doing ‘best they can in extremely difficult times’

Separately, an email to schools from caterers Alliance in Partnership states a weekly food hamper will contain a loaf of sliced bread, a 1.5 kg of dried pasta or jacket potato, two tins of baked beans, a pasta tomato sauce, two tins of fruit and a jar of jam.

The estimated cost for schools is £11.50 per week (the amount they get to cover free school meals per pupil). The products can be purchased for less than £8 when bought individually in supermarkets.

However Sally Tyson, AIP’s key client director, said: “These are extremely difficult times for all, and we are doing the absolute best that we can to ensure all children have a lunch time meal.”

She said the hamper is popular because there’s “minimum contact between children and the school catering team”, adding the firm has a duty to buy quality food rather than “the cheapest available”.

She added that the food industry is also having to deal with shortages, including pasta and baked beans, adding staff are “working to support teachers and children in school in the best way that it can in what are unprecedented and extremely challenging times”.


DfE drags its feet on FSM voucher scheme

It has now been almost a week since the Department for Education said it was working on a national voucher scheme for schools unable to use their current food provider.

The government said further details would be published “shortly”, but nothing has been forthcoming.

An email from a council sent to school leaders, seen by Schools Week, states the national voucher scheme should be available from next week.

It’s expected that weekly funding will be upped from £11.50 to £15 per pupil, with all the major supermarkets involved. This has also been confirmed by a second source.

However, there’s still been no official announcement, with the council warning things are changing from “day to day” so they can’t guarantee this will not change further.

A survey by Teacher Tapp found a quarter of teachers’ schools are delivering meals to pupils, while another 23 per cent are providing vouchers. Over a third of teachers did not know how the school was providing food.

Some schools are also transferring money directly to the bank accounts of parents.

Seb Chapleau, a former primary school headteacher and now director of the Big Education Conversation, part of the 250-plus school network Whole Education, said “schools are doing an incredible job at ensuring that many vulnerable families are not left out”.

But he added “we now need to see this treated with more urgency” by the government.


Claims vouchers will ’cause job losses’

The government is under pressure from caterers, who are against the issuing of vouchers.

A letter sent to Williamson on Friday by the School Food Matters charity, which was also signed by Unison and other food groups, urged the education secretary to ensure cash is instead spent on caterers.

“This will allow for better purchasing in terms of food quality and quantity, and enable schools to continue to provide food and other support for the most vulnerable children,” the letter said.

The letter also warned of “consequences for jobs and the economy: if the government funds a supermarket voucher scheme rather than prioritising investment of funds in existing school meal services, catering teams will lose their jobs.

“Wholesale distributors who supply school meals, already hit by the loss of private sector contracts, could also lose the public sector market resulting in more job losses.”