Coronavirus: Kids eligible for free school meals to get £15 shop vouchers in bid to help struggling parents
Parents will be able to redeem the vouchers in the absence of the usual meals provided by schools.
Parents of children eligible for free school meals will begin getting weekly supermarket vouchers to try to help them through the coronavirus shutdown, ministers have announced.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the Government acknowledged the mass closure of schools was “dramatically affecting the lives of many families” as he unveiled the £15-a-week help in a tie-up with major supermarket chains.
The proposals came as the IPPR think tank called for extra emergency help to stop children becoming the “unseen victims” of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the Government’s plans, schools will provide vouchers to families electronically - with parents showing codes on their phones at supermarket titles - or as gift cards for families without internet access.
They will be redeemable at shops including Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S - with the Department for Education vowing to get more shops on board “as soon as possible”.
Schools themselves will be responsible for distributing the vouchers and are set to receive emails on Tuesday from voucher firm Edenred outlining the help.
The DfE said the £15 value of the vouchers was set higher than the usual rates handed to schools to provide free school meals in recognition that “families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs”.
Unveiling the plans, Mr Williamson said: “I recognise that the unprecedented action this Government is taking to protect the country from coronavirus, including closing schools, is dramatically affecting the lives of many families.”
He added: “No child should go hungry as a result of the measures introduced to keep people at home, protect the NHS and save lives. That’s why we are launching this scheme to make sure children who usually benefit from free school meals still have access to healthy and nutritious meals while they are not attending school.”
The move has been welcomed by Paul Whiteman of teaching union the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT).
He said: “This new system fills in one of the remaining gaps in the complex jigsaw puzzle of provision that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis. 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.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, meanwhile said: “We are pleased that the Government has sorted out this voucher scheme for families who are eligible for free school meals. To date, schools have been making their own local arrangements, so the availability of a national scheme will be some relief.
“But let’s be under no illusions. This will be a tough situation for struggling families. They will have to provide lunches for each child for £3 a day, which is obviously not very much. We recognise that this is above the rate that is paid to schools, to allow for the fact that families cannot order food in bulk in the same way. Nevertheless, it will be challenging for parents and carers who already have the extra cost of children unexpectedly at home for an extended period.
“We will be monitoring the situation with our members and representing their feedback to the government.”
CHILDREN HELP PLEA
The move to try and make sure families are not further squeezed by the shutdown of normal life ordered by ministers came as the IPPR think tank called on ministers to do more to help children affected by the crisis.
The policy group said many families were now facing “increased financial hardship and the risk of debt, destitution and child poverty”.
They are calling for a £10-a-week increase in the child element of Universal Credit; the right to paid parental leave for those whose wages are being protected by the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme; and one-off “emergency” child benefit payments to help put money in the pockets of parents who now face extra costs to keep kids entertained and cared for.
Owners of private green spaces are also being urged to open them up to public use in crowded cities, with children who lack access to parks or gardens given priority.
Clare McNeil of the IPPR said: “For all the children of the pandemic, a normal childhood is out of reach for the foreseeable future. We need to intervene now to reduce the financial, educational and health gaps that will otherwise only widen while this crisis endures.”