A national voucher scheme has been launched in an effort to ensure children from the poorest households don’t go hungry during the coronavirus lockdown.
The vouchers are for children who would otherwise be eligible for free school meals, but who now might miss out because their school is closed. The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales estimates there are more than one million such children eligible.
According to the Department for Education (DfE), which announced the scheme today, the weekly shopping vouchers will be worth £15 to spend at supermarkets. Stores include Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S, but the DfE said it was working to get more shops signed up to the scheme.
“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,” said education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
“I want to thank schools for the support they are continuing to provide to families during such uncertain times.
“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.”
Schools can continue to provide meals for collection or delivery themselves, but where this is not possible, parents will receive the voucher through their child’s school, which can then be redeemed online via a code, or sent to their house as a gift card and used at supermarkets across the country.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), said: “This is welcome news for schools and families. 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.
“The Government has done the right thing by ensuring that vouchers can be used at a range of different shops, making it more practical for families to use the vouchers. Many schools had already developed their own schemes and local solutions, so it is good to see that they will be able to continue these if they’re working well or adopt the new scheme if they feel that would be better. We’ll be working with the government to make sure this system works as effectively as everyone hopes it will.”
Town hall chiefs have welcomed the voucher scheme. Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said the organisation had been calling for such a national scheme to “avoid each local area setting up its own arrangements”.
“No young person should have to go hungry and ensuring vulnerable pupils, including those on free school meals and with special educational needs and disabilities, are provided for is a top priority for councils and schools,” she added.
“There are already an estimated 1.3 million young people entitled to free school meals, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has meant that there are now a large number of families signing up to benefits.
“We want to work with the Government to ensure that struggling families are able to access the scheme as soon as possible. The Government should also consider extending the voucher scheme to cover families over the school holidays.”
Last week, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Alison Garnham warned how school closures could adversely impact children in poorer households.
“School closures will increase costs and place a greater burden on families struggling to keep their heads above water,” she said.
Her comments were made in response to the annual publication of official poverty statistics, Households Below Average Income 2018-19, which found:
- 72% of poor children live in working families in 2018-19, up from 70% in 2017-18, and 15% of poor children have a self-employed parent, that’s a record high
- Number of children in poverty rises 100,000 to 4.2 million after housing costs (AHC), up from 3.6 million in 2010. That’s 30% of UK children below the poverty line
- 600,000 more children in relative poverty (after housing costs) since 2010
- 100,000 more children in absolute poverty (after housing costs) since 2010 while the economy has grown by 16%
- 51% of poor children are aged under 5 — that’s more than 2 million children
- Proportion of poor children in couple-families rises to 68% (up from 65% in 2017-18); 32% of poor children are in a single parent family (down from 35%)
“This data always makes grim reading for people concerned about child poverty and this year, on the tenth anniversary of the now abolished Child Poverty Act passing into law it is grimmer still,” Garnham said. “We are facing a child poverty crisis.
“In recent days the Government has taken extraordinary steps, at a pace, to protect the jobs of millions and prevent an economic disaster as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, but still many families in low-paid and insecure jobs will be waking up this morning to the realities of our inadequate social security system.
“Raising the adult rate in universal credit and tax credits is a welcome improvement, but more is needed when it comes to reducing child poverty. Unless concerted action is taken now, this week’s laid-off workers and their children will be adding to next year’s poverty statistics.”