Coronavirus: Calls for clarity over free school meals in event of closures

Head teachers have called on the government to ensure vulnerable pupils continue to receive free school meals if settings are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Around 1.5m children are eligible for free school meals. Picture: Adobe Stock
Around 1.5m children are eligible for free school meals. Picture: Adobe Stock

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has advised schools to remain open, however, latest government documents laying out the Emergency Coronavirus Bill, due to be heard in Parliament tomorrow (Thursday), do not rule closure out completely.

The bill also adds that in a bid to keep schools open the standard of meals provided could be “adapted”.

Schools in Scotland and Wales will close from Friday in response to the outbreak which has now killed 71 people in the UK.

Stuart Lock, chief executive of Advantage Schools multi-academy trust and Vic Goddard, joint head teacher at Passmores Academy in Leeds, have written an open letter to Johnson, signed by at least 18 organisations, calling for clarity around how best to support around 1.5 million children eligible for free school meals in the event of school closures.

The letter says: “School closures are now a matter of when, not if.

“As school leaders, our greatest responsibility is to our most vulnerable learners, and as we face sending them home for an indeterminate period, we are all too aware that for many, this will mean that they miss out on their only hot meal of the day.”

It highlights uncertainty over whether schools will be penalised for providing families with vouchers for major supermarkets.

However, it adds that this option is made more difficult because:

  • There is no universal voucher redeemable at all supermarkets. Without one, co-ordination could place an unnecessary burden on schools;
  • None of the major supermarkets supply vouchers in denominations that match the funding allocation (ie. £2.50).

The pair call on the government to offer “urgent” clarity on the issue or provide a “preferred alternative”.

The government is also urged to “work with all supermarkets to ensure the necessary denominations are made available forthwith in a universal format”.

The letter comes as Co-op Academies Trust said it would give families on free school meals a £20 supermarket voucher to cover one week of unplanned closures.

While, Goddard said he had bought £15,000 worth of vouchers for families at Passmores Academy. 

Earlier this week, Parklands Academy in Leeds was praised for safeguarding plans made in preparation for school closures.

It laid-out plans to provide food hampers for children with child protection concerns and families deemed to be "vulnerable". Hampers would be collected from the school, staggered according to classes and year groups to avoid large gatherings, the guidelines state.

Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has written to ministers calling for increased support for vulnerable children including those in receipt of free school meals and free childcare places and those in care. 

She said: “Millions of children in low-income households rely on their free school meals every day.

“These are the children we need to ensure are being thought of and supported as we tackle the impact of coronavirus. What will be needed to ensure these vulnerable children don’t slip through the net, that they are identified and that those who were already at risk are protected?”

Alex Cunningham, chief executive of Magic Breakfast, which provides free breakfasts to 48,400 children in England said: "With the prospect of enforced school closures, we are working with urgency to ensure that these children will still have our food in the morning.  

"We are consulting with our partner schools, our food and logistics partners, corporate supporters, local authorities and organisations involved in the delivery of food to low income families, to establish the best way to reach hungry children throughout this period of crisis."

The government has already said funding for free childcare places will be paid to providers in the event of closures.

However, when asked about free school meals if schools close at yesterday's daily press briefing, Johnson said: "We would ensure these children receive the appropriate compensation and get the treatment they need."

The Emergency Coronavirus Bill also proposes powers to require childcare providers and schools to stay open as well as remove or relax some of their statutory duties. This includes teacher ratios, school meal standards and provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

“This will ensure that children, young people and those who work with them remain safe, while minimising disruption to everyday life and progression to further and higher education or employment by ensuring schools have the flexibility and support they need to respond pragmatically to the changing situation,” according to the government’s statement on the bill.

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