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Sat, 8 August 2020

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Supporting children at risk of hunger over the holidays should not be a one-off intervention

Supporting children at risk of hunger over the holidays should not be a one-off intervention

School breaking up for summer should never mean hunger – pandemic or no pandemic, says Christian Wakefield MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

The Government should build on this initial announcement and commit to funding free school food provision schemes for all children at risk of hunger, during every school holiday.

What did school mean to you as a child? Learning new things and getting an education? Seeing friends? Kicking a football about in the playground? 

As Marcus Rashford has reminded us all this week, for over one million children in England, school is not only a chance to learn and play - it’s also a chance to eat a hot and healthy meal.

One million children is a staggering number.

It includes 280,000 children who are supported by the Department for Education’s National School Breakfast Programme, implemented by Family Action and Magic Breakfast.

The Programme includes support for four schools in my constituency, Bury South, and a total of 1,800 schools across England. When at school, children supported by the Programme start the day with full stomachs, allowing them to feel calm, settled and ready to learn.

It may seem basic, but it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to educational outcomes. Crucially, the Programme has continued to operate during COVID-19, including during the holidays.

Covid-19 has been a tragedy, leading to a loss of life most of us could have scarcely imagined just a few months ago.

But it has also prompted us to re-examine what’s important and put in place new measures to support the most vulnerable in our society, including children. 

When school closures were announced, charities and Government quickly found innovative ways to reach disadvantaged children with food.

Headteachers immediately worked out ways to step in and ensure that although schools would be empty, children’s stomachs wouldn’t have to be. 

The solutions developed by headteachers, charities, government and others have been absolutely key to tackling child hunger during this pandemic.

This includes issuing supermarket food vouchers for children and using schools as food collection and delivery hubs.

These solutions now have the potential to positively impact children’s lives even after schools re-open.

These solutions can and should be used to support children experiencing food insecurity during school holidays during this crisis, and after we come out of the pandemic and things return to normal.

Hunger during the holidays is an issue that far predates and will outlast Covid-19.

Yesterday I welcomed the Government’s announcement that children eligible for free school meals will receive supermarket vouchers to cover the summer holiday period.

This follows the Government’s announcement last week, that the National School Breakfast Programme will also continue over the summer holidays. These decisions will make an immense difference to the lives of disadvantaged children.

With our economy in a fragile position, it has never been more important to support children during the holidays.

The Education Select Committee, which I am part of, is running an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and children services.

One common theme that has come up over and over again in the evidence we have received is that disadvantaged children have been worst affected by Covid-19. They have had less access to technology and devices, and they are spending less time per day learning.

By September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies anticipate that children from the lowest income households would have spent 15 days less learning than children from the highest income households.

The educational attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers will have undoubtedly widened as a result of Covid-19.

But hunger during the holidays is an issue that far predates and will outlast Covid-19.

Anytime schools are closed, too many families struggle to juggle the increased costs of having children at home, including childcare and replacing the meals children would have normally eaten at school.

School breaking up for summer should never mean hunger – pandemic or no pandemic.

This matters not just during those weeks, but in the longer term too, since holiday hunger impacts learning.

A study from Northumbria University found that following summer holidays, it took pupils from areas with high levels of deprivation seven weeks of teaching to make up the learning lost over the holidays.

The Government has rightly committed to levelling up the nation, however in order to do that fully, we need to consider education whilst we seek to not only Build Back Better but to Build Back Fairer.

This means taking the best initiatives developed during Covid-19 and holding on to them.

Supporting children at risk of hunger over the holidays should not be a one-off intervention.

The Government should build on this initial announcement and commit to funding free school food provision schemes for all children at risk of hunger, during every school holiday. 

Schools should mean many things to children. School breaking up for summer should never mean hunger – pandemic or no pandemic.

Christian Wakeford is Conservative MP for Bury South and a member of the education select committee.

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