free school meals

Schools should work with catering providers or local authorities to provide food parcels or send out supermarket vouchers to pupils eligible for free school meals who are affected by coronavirus.

The Department for Education has sent out new guidance for schools this morning on how to support pupils eligible for means-tested meals who are either unwell or self-isolated or at home because of temporary school closures.

Schools don’t normally have to provide free school meals for pupils who are away due to illness or school closure, but the government has said it “expects schools to continue to provide support” during the pandemic.

However, the DfE has accepted that the steps schools take to support pupils affected by coronavirus “might be different depending on the individual circumstances of the school”.

According to the guidance, schools’ first step should be contacting their in-house catering team or catering provider “to see if they can prepare meals or food parcels that could be delivered to, or collected by families”.

“If you use a local authority catering service, you should check if they have a scheme for providing meals or food parcels to vulnerable groups affected by coronavirus. If you use a private catering provider, contact them to see what alternative arrangements are available.”

Schools unable to use their current provider to continue offering meals should consider “using other local initiatives” such as a local school acting as a community hub, or a local charity. Alternatively, schools can provide families with supermarket vouchers, something a number of schools have already started doing.

The government is “currently developing a national approach to providing support through supermarket and shop vouchers”, and will provide further details “shortly”, the guidance states.

In the meantime, schools have been told by the DfE that they can “order supermarket and shop vouchers directly from a number of retailers – usually through their corporate division”.

“We recommend sourcing vouchers for supermarkets or shops in the local area. Where possible they should be restricted for use against age-related products.”

Schools will get a choice of e-vouchers, which can be emailed directly to parents, and gift cards, which are better for parents without access to the internet,

“You should check which pupils are eligible and currently in receipt of free school meals, and vouchers should be made available to the parent or the adult with caring responsibility for that child.”

The government plans to issue further guidance “shortly” on how it will compensate schools that incur additional costs in providing free school meals or vouchers.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “No child who would ordinarily receive a free school meal should go without this while their school is closed or while they are having to self-isolate at home.

“By giving headteachers flexibility on how they can get meals or shop vouchers to these children, they can make the most appropriate decisions for families in their communities, and provide immediate reassurance that this important support will continue.”