Coronavirus: Heads demand answers over how to feed poorer pupils if schools close

Headteachers are demanding answers on how to feed poorer children if schools close this week.

Schools have started pulling together plans on getting food parcels or vouchers to disadvantaged pupils who are entitled to free schools meals, with fears they could go hungry if not.

Updated guidance published yesterday warned it “may be necessary” to close schools if staff isolation due to coronavirus causes “operational issues”.

A government update last night stopped short of closing schools for the time being, but the chief scientific adviser has admitted it “may be necessary to think about closures”.

In an open letter to the Department for Education, which has since amassed 106 signatories, heads have called for clear guidance on how to solve the free school meal issue, and suggested working with supermarkets to ensure youngsters don’t go hungry.

They say: “As we plan for all eventualities, we are left with uncertainty about what constitutes acceptable use of the free school meal funding we are in receipt of on their behalf. A simple solution is to provide their families with vouchers redeemable at all major supermarkets, yet it is unclear whether schools will face sanctions for doing so.”

They say two factors make the situation harder – there is no universal voucher redeemable at all supermarkets and none of the major supermarkets supply vouchers in the funding allocation for example £2.50.

The letter adds: “We therefore urge the Department for Education to urgently make clear that school leaders who choose to ensure their vulnerable students are provided for in this manner will face no negative consequences, or to communicate what the department’s preferred alternative is.

“We also urge the Department for Education to work with all supermarkets to ensure the necessary denominations are made available forthwith in a universal format.”

Stuart Lock, CEO of Advantage Schools, said if caterers are unable to help for various reasons such as their own staff shortages, then they would look to use supermarket vouchers to help families.

“We need them to make it as easy as possible to do so,” he said.

Schools Week has repeatedly contacted all major supermarkets on whether they would commit to helping, but has not had a comment from any as yet.

It comes as pressure is mounting on the government to close England’s schools en-masse, following the decision to do so in multiple other European countries, including the Republic of Ireland.

The general secretaries of England’s two school leadership unions have said it is “likely that a number of schools will have to close”, following a meeting with ministers yesterday.

An online petition has been signed by over 1,500 people so far calling for governments to provide food provision for children who usually get free school meals so they don’t go hungry during coronavirus school closures.

A DfE spokesperson has said: “Advice from Public Health England continues to be for schools to remain open, unless advised otherwise.

“We are continually reviewing how best to support all educational settings and young people, and the impact of any measures will be considered carefully before being implemented.”

To read the letter, click here.