Hampshire education leaders welcome food vouchers U-turn but hit out at government over ‘simple decision’
HEADTEACHERS and education leaders have welcomed Boris Johnson’s U-turn on continuing to provide disadvantaged children with meal vouchers over the summer holidays.
However they have hit out at the government over a ‘lack of planning and foresight’ to make the ‘correct decision in the first place’.
The government had originally said the £15 weekly voucher system in place for children to continue to receive free school meals (FSM) during lockdown would not be available during the summer break. However, a high-profile campaign led by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford – who received free school meals when he was at school – added to political pressure and saw yesterday’s change of heart.
Free school meals have historically been provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While pleased with the decision, the region’s leading educationalists have been left baffled at what is the third consecutive U-turn regarding holiday food. The government previously announced FSM vouchers wouldn’t be available during Easter and May half-term holidays before changing its mind.
Ian Gates, headteacher at The Cowplain School, said: ‘I very much welcome the U-turn but it’s a shame it has taken pressure from so many people – why didn’t they get the right decision in the first place?
‘It was a simple decision which could have been made very quickly.’
For headteacher at Park Community school, Chris Anders, having to make the U-turn is a reflection of ‘a lack of understanding what it’s really like for people’.
Mr Anders said: ‘It’s good news for young people and families but it does make you wonder about their understanding of the realities of everyday life. Many of the decisions made throughout this pandemic have seemed odd to headteachers. However, at least they are willing to change their minds.’
Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for education, Suzy Horton, said: ‘I’m really please with the u-turn but I think it’s a sad indictment that it needs a footballer to bring it to the attention of the government – did they not learn from the first two holidays?’
Cllr Horton said the decision was ‘further evidence of a lack of planning’ and highlighted that ‘no child in Portsmouth has yet received a government laptop – despite the government’s policy announcement in April.
However, Conservative councillor Terry Norton feels the decision is a sign the government is listening.
Cllr Norton said: ‘The decision to extend the voucher scheme throughout the summer holidays demonstrates the government is listening and continuing to support families and businesses through this emergency and beyond.’
Portsmouth North, Conservative MP, Penny Mordaunt, has welcomed the news after ‘lobbying the government hard’ on the need for the scheme to continue.
Ms Mordaunt said: ‘I’m pleased that the prime minister has listened to us on this issue.’
The U-turn comes after the region’s headteachers and School Chef of the Year, Steven Cross had raised ‘serious concerns’ about the original decision not to continue the voucher scheme.
Steven, who has previously cooked for the Queen, said: ‘Taking away the vouchers for children in many of our schools will result in children going hungry on at lest five days of the week when parents would normally be getting support with at least one main meal.’
Speaking before the extension, headteacher at Crofton School, Simon Harrison, said: ‘I understand the government don’t normally provide this service over the summer but these are not normal circumstances. The situation does concern me. These families need the continued support of the government at this time and surely a system which is already up and running is the obvious way to do so.’
The situation had also attracted concern from a local Trussell Trust food bank at North End Baptist Church.
The Rev Tracey Ansell said: ‘We’ve already seen a 93 per cent increase in food demand compared to the same time last year and without the food vouchers we would be expecting an even bigger demand over the summer holidays.’
Priory School headteacher, Stewart Vaughan, hopes the decision to extend the service over holiday periods can lead to a permanent change in policy.
Mr Vaughan said: ‘This is great news. It’s good to see there has been an outbreak of common sense but it’s a sorry state of affairs when we need to get leadership from a footballer.
‘Holiday hunger has always been a concern for us which has been magnified by Covid-19 and can hopefully lead to more permanent support.’