More than free school meals U-turn needed to curb child poverty, campaigners say

The Government’s one-off free summer school meal voucher scheme is not enough to tackle child poverty, education campaigners have warned.

About 1.3 million children in England will now get the vouchers during the summer holidays after a Government U-turn following a personal and high-profile campaign by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford.

England’s Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said U-turn will help many families, but “there will still be four million children living in poverty – a number that could increase following the Covid crisis”.

She stressed: “Tackling child poverty does not end here, and should be the mission of every government.”

Ms Longfield said she had written the Chancellor last week and called on the Government to urgently rethink its decision not to extend free school meals over the summer holidays.

Coronavirus – Mon May 18, 2020
Teachers at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester prepare meals for the local community during the coronavirus lockdown (Jacob King/PA)

“Free school meals are the last line of defence against poverty and hunger for many families,” she added.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), noted that the move had only come after “a great deal of public pressure” during the current coronavirus pandemic.

He said: “For too many children and young people, hunger is an all too familiar part of their daily life.

“It is now time for Government to act upon the need to end child poverty, not just for the period of a pandemic, but for all time.”

The cost of the Covid summer food fund will come to £120 million in additional spending, Downing Street said.

Marcus Rashford refuses to give up on campaign to extend free school meals
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford (Nigel French/PA)

The 22 year-old Manchester United forward had penned an open letter to MPs this week, in which he drew on his own experience of relying on free school meals.

He urged people to think about struggling parents and hungry children who have had their “water turned off” during the lockdown.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, fears that “too many vulnerable children face falling through the cracks”.

The Government, cross-party politicians, parents, teachers and local governments now need to do more, she said.

Combining the free school meals voucher scheme with an emergency uplift in child benefit and a catch-up premium to ensure every child has the best start in life is among proposals made by the Liberal Democrats.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “It is thanks to the amazing work of Marcus Rashford and campaigners that the Government has had no choice but to reverse their decision.

“The Government must now confirm that this new money will be for the direct provision of free school meals to all eligible children.”

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