Holiday free school meals support runs thin as funding dries up

Voucher schemes that continued after the pandemic are beginning to be shelved as government funding becomes more stretched

Voucher schemes that continued after the pandemic are beginning to be shelved as government funding becomes more stretched


Hard-up families face a “postcode lottery” in free school meals support during holidays after one in five councils has scrapped voucher schemes started during the pandemic.

A Schools Week investigation found changes to government cost of living grants and rising numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals have forced town halls to rethink their support.

Of 50 councils that responded to our enquiries, nine have stopped providing weekly vouchers entirely. A further five have reduced the amount on offer over the summer.

It comes as new figures show a rise of a third in the number of pupils eligible for free school meals, now totalling almost 1.9 million.

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “Over the pandemic, children and young people have faced enormous challenges – both in terms of wellbeing and attainment – so it is more vital than ever that this support is available.”

He said the emerging “postcode lottery in school holiday FSM vouchers is a concern”.

‘Vouchers no longer sustainable’

York council scrapped weekly vouchers, saying the annual £750,000 cost is “not affordable without further government funding”. Families can apply for help through a different scheme.

free school meals

Birmingham has also ended its £1.25 million-a-week voucher scheme, with council leader Ian Ward telling local media it was “not sustainable” without more cash. Funding will instead be spent on “hardship grants” for free school meal households and holiday clubs.

A national free school meal voucher scheme was launched in spring 2020 following the closure of schools to most pupils.

Although ministers initially refused to extend the scheme over holiday periods, they eventually reneged following a high-profile campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Direct funding for holiday meal vouchers was stopped in late 2020, with vouchers having cost £384 million since the scheme began.

Since then, councils have received other government funding – such as the £170 million Covid winter support grant and the subsequent £921 million household support fund. But these are to fund wider support for communities, not just free school meals for children.

Choice of helping pensioners or kids

Approached about the problems faced by some councils, the government pointed to its holiday activities and food programme and household support funding.

But the HAF programme only covers four weeks of the summer holiday. And support is only available to those who sign up.

The household support scheme also became more restrictive in April, with a third of funding ringfenced for vulnerable pensioners.

Hampshire council got £7.1 million for the April to September period. But providing free school meals alone would cost £5.3 million.

“Even allocating two-thirds to families with children would not cover the cost of the vouchers during this period and doing so would leave little to nothing for households who are pensioners or who did not have children,” a spokesperson said.

Some replacement schemes by councils are close to or more generous than the previous weekly schemes, worth £90 over a six-week summer break.

Cornwall council will now provide single payments equivalent to £80 per child. Lincolnshire council will issue “one-off grants” of £95.

But other schemes are less generous.

Peterborough council said it had to reduce the value of vouchers to £45 for the summer because of the changes to government grants.

Windsor and Maidenhead provided £20 vouchers for each eligible child in the May half term. But vouchers in the summer will be a “minimum” value of £55.

450k more pupils now on free meals

Some councils also said rising free school meal rates were affecting affordability.

New government census figures show 22.5 per cent of pupils in England are now eligible for free school meals, though eligibility is as high as 29.1 per cent in some regions.

The Department for Education said the 9 per cent increase in eligibility between January 2021 and 2022 was “in line with those increases seen prior to the pandemic”, following a much larger 21 per cent increase between 2020 and 2021.

Taken together, the two increases since January 2020 mean over 450,000 more pupils are now eligible for free school meals, a rise of 32 per cent over two years.

Some councils, like Nottingham, are still finalising summer plans.

The council said the latest funding was “not sufficient to fully fund the whole of the summer holiday period in the same way as has previously been done”.

Coventry council is also exploring its options, but councillor Kindy Sandhu said: “With the cost of living crisis hitting our most vulnerable residents, now is the time for government to support our families who are most in need.”

Ealing councillor Bassam Mahfouz said: “We demand that government commit to funding FSM so families can afford to put food on the table.”

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