Headteachers in England have been told not to provide either free school meal vouchers or food parcels for disadantaged children over the half-term holiday next month, it has emerged.
With the dust barely settled following a furious row this week over substandard food parcels, the government appeared to be heading into yet another damaging dispute over children going hungry during the holidays.
Fresh guidance from the Department for Education published this week states: “Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term.” Instead, it says there is already wider government support available to support families and children outside of term-time through the Covid winter grant scheme.
The government set up the £170m winter package last November, following an earlier intervention by the footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, who has already forced the government into a series of U-turns over free school meals.
The National Education Union said, however, that councils would struggle to ensure that the money got to families.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is simply astonishing that the government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic.
“After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again.”
Courtney continued: “This week, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson made public statements about how appalled they were by the quality of food parcels shared on Twitter. But that is put in the shade by today’s confirmation that free school meals will not go ahead over half-term. These are battles which should not have to be repeatedly fought.
“No child should wake up feeling anxious about where their next meal is coming from, and even now millions are still waiting for the reinstatement of the national food voucher scheme after weeks of struggling to access food parcels.
“Suggesting that local councils will be able to recreate a brand new system of supplying free school meals for the week of half-term using the Covid winter grant scheme is an unnecessary logistical nightmare, and the confusion and chaos this will cause puts millions of children at risk.
“The anguish, not to mention hunger, this decision will cause is immeasurable. Ministers should hang their heads in shame and unless they reverse this decision never again speak of their concern for disadvantaged children. Their actions show very clearly that they do not care.”