Ministers ‘knew all along’ free school meal vouchers would cover Easter

Ministers have been accused of knowing “all along” they would extend the national voucher scheme into the Easter holidays.

But Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, did not announce the decision to continue providing the vouchers to families eligible for free school meals until April 4, the day after most schools broke up for the holiday.

It appears the DfE knew all along it would be providing vouchers over Easter, but left vulnerable families in the lurch

Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the Department for Education’s initial contract with the voucher supplier Edenred, which came into force on March 28, was for a month. That included the Easter holidays.

The government claims the contract was set up in this way to give it “flexibility” over when to offer the provision.

But Andy Jolley, a school food campaigner, said the claim was “disingenuous”.

“It would make no sense to sign a contract where 50 per cent of it is holidays,” he said. “It appears the DfE knew all along it would be providing vouchers over Easter, but left vulnerable families in the lurch until Gove’s announcement.”

The voucher scheme was launched in March following the decision to close schools to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

Schools were given access to an online portal, run by Edenred, to order supermarket vouchers worth £15 a week that could be sent to families of eligible pupils not attending school.

But the website struggled to keep up with demand, leaving some of the country’s poorest children hungry.

The government appeared to initially resist calls to continue to provide vouchers over holidays, when pupils would not normally receive free school meals.

But ministers capitulated, eventually providing them over the Easter, May half term and summer breaks.

A spokesperson for the NAHT, the school leaders’ union, said it was “immensely frustrating” to discover the option to keep pupils fed was “there all along”.

And Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “pretty shoddy” that the government ruled provision out and then changed its mind after schools had broken up. “It could clearly have done the right thing several days earlier and given families and schools greater certainty.”

The National Audit Office, the government’s spending watchdog, has since announced an investigation into the scheme.

A spokesperson for Edenred said the company was “pleased have the opportunity to support the DfE in the delivery free school voucher scheme which provided the equivalent of 128 million individual meals by the end of the summer to children who needed them”.