U turn on funding school meals

A few days ago, Cllr Tom Bruce, Hounslow’s Cabinet Member for Education, Youth and Children’s Services, wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson MP, criticising the Departments for Education’s decision not to fund free school meals during half-term. He was one of more than a thousand councillors across England to have written to the government calling for free school meals to be provided over the half-term and summer breaks, after ministers said there were no plans to fund them during the forthcoming holidays.

Ordinarily free school meals are only provided during term time, but the government made an exception last month because of the unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty facing schools and parents. At Easter, vouchers were made available at the last minute to help support the most disadvantaged families and the councillors warned they would now face “holiday hunger” as the Covid-19 crisis continues.

The Government has now reversed this decision and will retrospectively reimburse schools for the costs. Schools minister Nick Gibb revealed during an education committee hearing on Wednesday, half way through the May half term week, that the government would now fund free meal vouchers for this week.

Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s 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.”

Cllr Tom Bruce also had a number of other questions for the Education Secretary, which still need an answer:

  • ‘Are schools expected to remain open for critical workers and vulnerable pupils over the summer break?
  • ‘Are schools expected to remain open for a wider cohort of children?
  • ‘If schools or summer schemes are to be offered during the summer break, will the Department for Education fund free school meals?
  • In light of the Government’s demand that Transport for London withdraw free travel to under 18s, what support will be given to those travelling to and from school?

Cllr Bruce said:

“It was of course welcome that the Government u-turned on its disgraceful decision not to fund free school meals, and has done the decent thing in supporting schools and families during this extremely difficult time.

“However, it’s unacceptable that there is still so much uncertainty around how schools will be expected to operate over the coming months. It is not fair on hard-working teachers and concerned parents.

“Staff have been working non-stop since the beginning of the school closures, often in very unfamiliar and difficult conditions. Many schools in Hounslow have remained open through the Easter period, bank holidays and half term, supporting key workers and vulnerable children. They are now planning to welcome back more children, in an even more challenging environment.

“To enable schools and parents to plan effectively we need to know now what will be expected of them over the coming months. Teachers want to strike the best balance between keeping themselves and their pupils safe, while providing the best education they can. This is impossible when the Government is keeping us in the dark. We need answers.”

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See also: Tentative return to school

See also: When are the schools going back?