Pressure mounting on government to make U-turn over free school meals over summer holiday

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Picture: Archant

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Pressure is mounting on the government to reverse its decision to scrap free school meals over the summer holiday - led by England international footballer Marcus Rashford.

The Manchester United forward yesterday published an open letter to Downing Street, describing the impact the scheme had on his family when he was growing up.

In it he called on the government to make a U-turn and continue it through the summer, with the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating poverty across the nation.

The 22-year-old’s open letter, which calls on the Government to reconsider its decision not to extend the current food voucher scheme, has received support from education leaders and teachers’ unions.

Mr Rashford later said he had been “blown away with the support”, adding: “It’s not over yet, let’s keep retweeting and tagging local MPs.

“We need to be the voice for those 200,000 children who have no choice but to skip meals today, I refuse to give up.”

But a Department for Education spokesman said: “Free school meals are ordinarily term time only, and the national voucher scheme will not run during the summer holidays.”

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They added: “Thousands of children will also receive additional support through our Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers activities and free meals throughout the summer holidays.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Boris Johnson would respond to the footballer’s letter “as soon as he can”, and praised him for “using his profile in a positive way to highlight some very important issues”.

He added: “The Prime Minister understands the issues facing families across the UK, which is why last week the Government announced an additional £63 million for local authorities to benefit families who are struggling to afford food and other basic essentials.

“The PM also set out that as schools open more widely and their kitchens reopen, we expect them to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children that are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to schools.

“Where that is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils.”

Mr Rashford has been backed by former Bury St Edmunds headteacher Geoff Barton, now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

He said: “If the government is genuinely committed to social equity, it must extend the provision of free school meals to continue during the summer holidays.

“Disadvantaged families are likely to have been hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, and the very least we can do as a society is ensure that children from these backgrounds have something to eat.”

Former education secretary Justine Greening also backed the footballer’s demands. She said: “I know from my experience that there are lots of difficult decisions for ministers to take - this is an easy one.”

Mr Rashford, who has raised £20 million to boost food distribution with the charity FareShare, has admitted using food banks and receiving free meals as a child.

He said he wants to help the families that need it the most, knowing how it felt to go hungry.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “Holiday hunger has always been a great concern for school leaders and this summer is likely to be especially challenging for many low-income families, given the impact of lockdown on finances.

“We agree with Marcus Rashford that the Government must not let children go hungry over the summer and should provide funding to extend free school meals.”