Coronavirus: Head pleads for free school meal clarity

Core school funding being spent on FSM vouchers due to lack of 'definitive' guidance as eligible families targeted by online scam

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A headteacher behind a campaign for supermarket food vouchers for the 1.3 million pupils eligible for free school meals during the coronavirus epidemic has called for more "definitive" information on how the government will deliver a national voucher scheme.

Vic Goddard, co-principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, asked whether schools would be funded to provide vouchers for pupils eligible for free school meals over the Easter holidays.


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Speaking to Tes, Mr Goddard said: "We need clarity around this – we are a week away from the holidays.

"Usually we would never provide food in the holidays, so is there an expectation that we should do this because that's a week away?

"We will be rushing to Tesco and Asda to buy vouchers – some schools have been giving families cash.

"But we just need clarity...we seem to come up with our own expectations, and then they [the government] agree with it, but we need ideas from the top down. We need to know – are we doing bank holidays, are we doing weekends?"

He said his school has been unable to find £23 vouchers for FSM pupils – who are entitled to £2.30 per day – and were instead giving out £25 vouchers.

"So we are overpaying out of money we haven’t got but the government needs to be definitive.

"It feels like there’s a reneging of responsibility on this – everyone else in the country is centralising and we are being left on a limb.

"I think Boris Johnson said in an interview in the run-up to the election that he’s a details man, and now’s the time for somebody to prove that.

"I’m aware there’s a lot to be thought through, of course there is, it’s hideous. For once I don’t envy the prime minister his job. But I know there are really, really, really clever people in the civil service and someone needs to focus on this."

Mr Goddard said he had been restructuring his school and making staff redundant owing to a lack of funds but was now spending money he did not have on free school meals provision.

He said there needed to be more clarity over whether meals should be provided at weekends, bank holidays and holidays. 

"Now we are going to stretch ourselves and end up in a worse situation – we’re fearful for our staff, we’re fearful for our kids, we’re fearful we’ll be the next school in the headlines spending money," he said.

He suggested the government could release schools' money for the year so that headteachers are not overspending on FSM.

'Shameful' provision

Last week, the government said that vouchers for FSM pupils would be backed by the Department for Education. 

And in the DfE's latest published guidance for the provision of free school meals, it says that schools should work with school catering teams or external providers to see if they can prepare meals or food parcels to be delivered to families.

If schools are unable to use current providers, it is suggested that they use other initiatives, such as the school acting as a community hub or local charity, or through providing families with supermarket vouchers. 

"We are currently developing a national approach to providing support through supermarket and shop vouchers. We will provide further details shortly," the DfE guidance said.

"If your school is closed and your school catering team cannot provide meals or food parcels, you should offer families of pupils eligible for free school meals an alternative.

"We understand that some of these approaches may mean that schools and other educational establishments go to additional expense.

"We will provide further guidance shortly on how we will compensate schools who incur additional costs in providing free school meals or vouchers to pupils affected by coronavirus (Covid-19)."

However, headteachers on social media are calling for more information, with one staff member saying their school had used canteen stocks of dry foods such as pasta to make up food parcels for families, but that they were "hoping for more guidance soon".

And Peter Overton, a primary headteacher in Bristol, described the free school meals provision from his school's contractor as "shameful".

Posting an image of a loaf of bread, packets of crisps, packs of butter, cereal bars and fruit, he said his school paid a contractor £11 for pupils eligible for FSM to receive this for the week.

 Another user posted a similar picture of what secondary pupils could expect, which included five processed cheese slices, adding: "Yes, for 5 days."

School leaders' unions have said the advice to schools "has not yet been made clear".

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The provision of free school meals over the Easter holidays has not yet been made clear.

"We would certainly expect that a free school meal would be provided to any eligible child who is attending school over this period and that this should be funded by the government.

"There is also an argument for free school meal provision for children who are at home given the extended period that they are out of school and the additional financial pressure this will place on struggling families. We will be discussing this with the government.”

FSM families targeted by online scam

Today, it was reported that families with children eligible for free school meals have been warned about a scam email asking them to hand over their bank details to get support.

The government said it was aware the email had been sent to some parents and anyone who receives it should not respond and delete it immediately.

In recent days, multiple agencies have warned that criminals are using the coronavirus crisis to scam people out of money and personal information.

A tweet from the Department for Education (DfE) said it had "been informed some parents have received an email stating: 'As schools will be closing, if you're entitled to free school meals, please send your bank details and we'll make sure you're supported.'"

The tweet warns parents: "This is a scam email – do not respond, and delete immediately."

There are around 1.3 million children entitled to free school meals.

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