DfE U-turn on half-term free meal vouchers is 'far too late'

The government’s u-turn to fund free school meal vouchers during the half-term comes “far too late” and has caused “worry and confusion” for families living in poverty, Labour has said.

Schools minister Nick Gibb revealed during an education committee hearing this morning that the government would now fund free meal vouchers over the May half-term.

Today – midway through the one-week half-term – was the first many in the sector had heard of the U-turn. It has emerged the change of plan was communicated in a letter to the education select committee on Friday, which has only been published today.

The Department for Education had previously said it had “no plans” to fund vouchers over this holiday. The late notice will come too late for many schools to take advantage of vouchers, which are normally ordered weeks in advance.

Tulip Siddiq, the shadow children’s minister, said: “Labour has always supported families accessing free school meals over half-term, but announcing this U-turn during the week itself is far too late.

“Families have been extremely worried that they would not be able to feed their children properly this week as a result of the Government’s initial reluctance.”

She added the fact more than 100,000 people signed a petition, launched by a 16-year-old student, to fund vouchers over the holidays shows “how much worry and confusion this has caused”.

One of the complications in barring vouchers over holidays is that the department seemingly can’t prevent schools from buying them.

But the DfE has told Children and Young People Now that it still has “no plans” to fund the vouchers over the summer holidays.

The spokesperson added: “Costs of the national voucher scheme to provide free school meals for eligible pupils will continue to be met by DfE over the May half-term break.”

In the letter to the committee, children’s minister Vicky Ford said she recognises the national voucher scheme caused “challenges” for schools and families, but said it has been a “personal priority” to improve it.

She said improvements reported by Edenred, the firm that runs the service, include “virtually eradicated” queue times, additional technical support from a “leading” tech firm, an expanded contact centre and an MP hotline to deal with urgent enquiries.

But she admitted there are “still issues”, including queues reaching 25 minutes on Mondays. “Edenred are committed to fully eradicating all queuing,” she said.

She added they were “mindful” families “will sometimes need some help” using the codes at the till – adding it was “clearly frustrating” and Edenred has updated its FAQs and user guides in response.

Schools Week had previously revealed how parents had called schools in tears because they had been waiting weeks for vouchers to arrive, with codes not working when parents went to use them at the till.

Despite knowing the problems with the national scheme was leaving parents hungry, the DfE also ignored an offer to help from a firm that said it could quickly issue thousands of vouchers.

Ford said that £100 million worth of voucher codes have now been redeemed, with over 17,000 school placing orders.