Schools have begun making preparations to ensure that disadvantaged children do not go hungry over the Christmas holidays after the government refused to extend free school meals over October half-term.
School leaders in England are considering what additional support they will be able to put in place during the two-week festive break so that pupils eligible for free meals continue to receive food.
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One academy trust is planning to recruit an army of volunteers to deliver meals to pupils’ homes on Christmas Day – and another school is planning to give cash to eligible families to combat holiday hunger.
The plans have been revealed amid mounting anger among teachers and school leaders over prime minister Boris Johnson’s refusal to extend free meals during the half-term break to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on poorer children.
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The leader of a headteachers’ union has warned that the prime minister could be perceived as a “modern-day version of Scrooge” if he fails to take action.
Businesses, community groups and councils have stepped up and provided meals for children as many schools in England began their October half-term holiday.
Schools are now already looking ahead to Christmas to make sure children are not left without meals.
Steve Chalke, chief executive of Oasis Community Learning, which has 53 schools across England, said the trust is “stepping up” plans to help pupils over the festive period as a result of the pandemic.
“We realise that this Christmas is going to be dreadful," he said. "You’re going to get half the country feasting and the other half with nothing.
“And the number of children in our schools who are now designated as vulnerable has grown by 43 per cent since the beginning of Covid.”
Oasis, where nearly half of pupils are eligible for free school meals, already provides youngsters with food during the school holidays – including the October half-term.
But this year, it will recruit volunteers to deliver meal packages to families’ homes on Christmas Day – and the campaign will start as early as next week, as the trust says it needs to be on a “grander scale” this year.
Mr Chalke added: “We have talked about a kind of new regulation-proof plan and that will involve the delivery of food. So we’re planning to deliver food because people might not be able to meet.
“What we do not need is the prime minister, or a local authority, to tell you the truth, coming up with a plan on 21 December – because it’s too late."
A petition from footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for free meals to be extended in England over the school holidays, has increased the pressure on the government to act.
Before councils began announcing support, Pepe Di’Iasio, head of Wales High School, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, started making arrangements last week to ensure that families would be given money for food over half-term.
Now the school is looking to work with a charity to provide financial help over Christmas for the first time as it is concerned that a growing number of children will be hit by poverty due to redundancies.
Mr Di’Iasio said: “This really is a time when you think of A Christmas Carol and the likes of people not being able to feed themselves on Christmas Day, or not having a decent meal on Christmas Day.
“It’s heart-breaking that the sixth richest country in the world can’t put this right and is happy to vote for children to go hungry over half-term and potentially over Christmas as well. It’s horrible.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government should take note of school leaders who are already planning how to tackle holiday hunger.
He said: “The prime minister will be perceived as a modern-day version of Scrooge if he fails to act, and deservedly so.
“This has been a terrible year for many families, and they should at least be able to have a Christmas without worrying about how they are going to feed their children. This is modern Britain, not the Victorian era.”
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi has said the government could “learn from” the holiday activities and food programmes as a potential way of addressing concerns over how to feed vulnerable children.
He was speaking after Mr Johnson promised to do “everything in our power” to tackle holiday hunger over Christmas, but he defended his handling of the row.
Universal credit has been increased by £20 a week, while £63 million was announced in June by ministers to help councils to feed vulnerable families.
The prime minister highlighted the money given to councils and said universal credit is “one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time”.