Coronavirus: Pupils won't get free school meal vouchers during Easter holidays

A national voucher scheme aimed at keeping the poorest children fed during school closures will not run throughout the Easter holidays, the Department for Education has confirmed.

The government confirmed today that it was pressing ahead with its plans to issue £15 weekly supermarket vouchers to families for pupils who would normally qualify for means-tested free lunches.

Families on low incomes will need access to school meals during this fortnight, particularly as food banks are seriously overstretched

Campaigners had hoped the scheme would continue through the Easter holidays in order to address concerns about holiday hunger at a time when many more families are likely to be suffering financially.

Schools have been told they must remain open during the break if possible to continue to care for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

However, the DfE confirmed in guidance issued this morning that the voucher scheme is “term-time only”, and that it is up to schools if they want to provide their own meals service during Easter. No extra funding for such provision will be provided.

“It is for schools to decide locally how their arrangements for free school meals will operate,” the DfE’s guidance states.

“Whilst the vouchers are for term time only, if there is a local arrangement to supply food that the school and the supplier intend to continue over this period then that can be agreed and managed locally.

“This would need to be manageable within schools’ existing resources, as there will not be additional funding available for this purpose.”

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the decision not to continue the scheme over the Easter fortnight was “disappointing”.

“This isn’t a normal school holiday and we are asking teachers and support staff to volunteer to work, in support of the NHS.

“Families on low incomes will need access to school meals during this fortnight, particularly as food banks are seriously overstretched and it is much harder to shop affordably at the moment.”

He pointed to recent government statistics that showed 4.2 million children were trapped in poverty, and warned this was “likely to rise when the current public health crisis subsides”.

“Food vouchers might be the only realistic and manageable intervention for many schools at the moment, but we mustn’t normalise the idea of food provision to poorer families. We must banish food poverty once the health crisis is over, through better wages and secure employment.”

Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser and now chief executive of the Education Partnerships Group, tweeted that expecting schools to be open at Easter but not funding free meals over the holidays was “not really ok”.

The omission has also prompted the launch of a #FSM4Easter campaign by the Headteachers’ Roundtable think tank. Its members will use the hashtag on Twitter to put pressure on the government, and will also lobby MPs.

In a blog post, the organisation said providing £30 of vouchers to cover the two weeks of Easter for each of the 1,247,409 pupils entitled to free school meals would cost around £37.5 million.

“At a time hundreds of billions of pounds have rightly been used to support companies, employees and the self-employed the figure is relatively small; the impact for families would be immense,” the post stated.

“For disadvantaged families an additional £30 per child arriving immediately cannot be understated. School governors and staff, working in the heart of their communities, know the additional impact of COVID-19 on families who for years have been struggling. We are in this together; we have to be in this together but especially for our most needy families, children and young people.”