During this challenging time, it is important we do all we can to support each other and our communities. This is especially true when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable in our society. I have been in close communication with my colleagues in the Department for Education on this matter and I am pleased to provide you with the latest update following the events of last week.
I welcome the action being taken to help schools keep providing Free School Meals (FSM) for eligible families during this difficult period. Schools are being encouraged, where possible, to continue providing meals or food parcels for eligible pupils through their existing food providers. Recognising this is not always an option, on 31 March, a national scheme was launched for schools to provide supermarket vouchers to eligible pupils, with costs covered by the Department for Education (DfE). This gives school leaders the flexibility to determine the best way to support families in their communities.
The vouchers are worth £15 a week per child, which is higher than the amount schools usually receive for FSM. Schools can place orders for vouchers online for parents and carers, who will be able to use them in a variety of supermarkets. The list of participating supermarkets currently includes Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, M&S, Waitrose, Aldi and McColl’s and I know Ministers are working to expand this list. Where families are unable to access any of these supermarkets, schools are able to buy vouchers for other retailers and the DfE will refund the cost.
The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP, said in June that “we must remember that free school meals are not about providing financial support for families; they are there to support a child’s education. Receiving a healthy, nourishing meal is a critical way of helping a child to focus and to learn in school. It helps to enable a child to fulfil their potential, which is essential if we want to break the cycle of poverty from which far too many children right across the country suffer.” I absolutely agree with my colleague on this and I was assured by his confirmation that “measures are in place to ensure that the vouchers are not used for things such as alcohol, cigarettes or gambling. That is an important protection.”
This Government spends over £550 million a year, through the National Funding Formula, providing free school meals for disadvantaged children and young people across England. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, schools have continued to receive this funding and the Government has provided additional funding through the aforementioned national voucher scheme to support children at home. As of 15 June, vouchers worth over £154 million have been redeemed by schools and families.
As schools open more widely, and their kitchens reopen, we expect schools to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children who are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to school. Where this is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils.
Provision for free school meals is ordinarily term time only. I know the Government fully understands children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation this summer, and I want to thank Marcus Rashford for his work to highlight the difficulties which many families face. As an Arsenal fan, I may not support him on the pitch, but I can say I absolutely admire and praise his incredible work off the field, as well as the manner in which he conducted his campaign to extend FSM. This extension will be through providing a Covid Summer Food Fund, which will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.
Full details will be set out shortly, but this is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic. The scheme will not continue beyond the summer, and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.
I also welcome that, during this challenging period, the eligibility criteria for FSM is temporarily being extended. This includes some groups who have no recourse to public funds. Further details can be found here - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/guidance-for-the-temporary-extension-of-free-school-meals-eligibility-to-nrpf-groups
This system was developed at pace to support families across England and I am assured the Department for Education is working closely with the supplier to ensure orders are processed quickly.
The Government has made significant wider support available for children and families at this time. On 10 June, the Prime Minister confirmed an additional £63 million to be distributed to local authorities in England to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials due to COVID-19. In addition, the Government has introduced an uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by around £1,000 a year for the next 12 months as part of an injection of over £6.5 billion by Government into the welfare system.
Additional support has been pledged by various departments across government with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announcing the provision of £16 million for food support through charities, including FareShare and WRAP. DEFRA have also issued 2 million food packages to those who are shielding.
The Department for Education’s Holiday Activities and Food programme ensures thousands of disadvantaged children have access to enriching activities and nutritious healthy meals over the summer. This summer, the Department will again run the programme at a cost of £9 million.
More widely, the Government has supported families to cope with the impact of coronavirus by introducing a range of support measures, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. Over 11.5 million people have been supported by these schemes, meaning that millions of families have continued to receive a pay cheque every month. Support has also been provided to help families pay their rent or mortgage, access sick pay, and delay tax payments.
As the Prime Minister has said, it is our intention to get all pupils back into school in September.
I hope this update was helpful. Stay safe!