Coronavirus: Free school meals children to get food vouchers

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School mealsImage source, Reuters
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Ministers are responding to fears that children on free school meals could go hungry

Families with children eligible for free school meals in England will be able to claim weekly shopping vouchers while schools are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, say ministers.

The scheme will allow schools to issue vouchers worth £15 a week per child.

Headteachers have warned that even with the vouchers, some parents will struggle to feed their children.

But the Department for Education says the rate exceeds that normally paid to schools for free school meals.

Schools across the UK were forced to close earlier this month to all pupils, except the children of key workers such as doctors, nurses and supermarket delivery drivers, as well as some vulnerable children and those with more serious special educational needs.

Around 1.3 million in children in England are entitled to free school meals and, until now, schools have been making their own arrangements.

Schools will be able to continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, but where this is not possible the voucher system will ensure children do not lose out.

Schools will be able to order the voucher codes online from Tuesday, and ministers hope parents could start receiving them the same day.

Families will be issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15, to spend at supermarkets including Sainsbury's, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.

"No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home," said England's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

  • In Scotland, the government has pledged that all children eligible for free school meals will still receive them through their local authorities
  • The Welsh government is developing a national voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals but - in the meantime - schools and local authorities are charged with continuing to provide meals throughout the Easter break
  • In Northern Ireland, the government is introducing direct payments to families whose children normally get free school meals

'A tough situation'

Headteachers' leaders welcomed the scheme although the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, warned that £3 a day would still leave families struggling,

"Let's be under no illusions, this will be a tough situation," said Mr Barton.

"It will be challenging for parents and carers who already have the extra cost of children unexpectedly at home for an extended period."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: "There may be some kinks to work out of the scheme, especially as it has been developed at pace, but at least there is some certainty available now."

Mr Whiteman said heads would work with government to make sure the scheme worked as effectively as possible.

The government says the value of the vouchers, which exceeds the rate paid to schools for free school meals, recognises the fact that families will not be able to buy food in bulk, and could incur higher costs.

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