Controversy and confusion surrounding the Free School Meals Scheme has been ongoing since the first school closures in March 2020, and it isn’t over yet.
With news of a national lockdown in March last year throwing the whole country into a tailspin, there was much confusion around how free school meals would continue to operate and who would be responsible for feeding children in those families who rely on support.
There has been much back and forth between the government, local authorities, schools, and even celebrities in the last 12 months on how best to adapt the scheme.
As it turned out, in the first few weeks of lockdown, alongside managing widespread disruption, schools were expected to make their own arrangements to provide food for children who are part of the scheme.
Naturally, this left schools across the country scrambling to make suitable arrangements. As CEO of Vine Schools Trust, a Multi-Academy Trust, based in Essex, I remember the urgency and quick-thinking adjustments the 23 primary schools in our Trust had to make to ensure these children would be appropriately catered for.
As the closure announcement came, schools within our Trust essentially had to make plans overnight on how best to get food to their children. With the added strain of reduced staff numbers due to self-isolation, many of our headteachers found themselves changing food orders, re-organising food storage and taking food deliveries.
Fortunately, all our schools rose to the challenge and were able to organise food parcels to be delivered to home, or organised collection times with the parents and carers. One of our headteachers even got on her bike to deliver food parcels to a handful of families who were unable to make collections.
Another headteacher, after dropping off a food parcel to a single-parent family who had tested positive for COVID-19, went straight out to the supermarket and did a full food shop to cover all the family’s meals. She felt so heartbroken to see a parent within her school community struggling alone.
Herein lies the problem; schools have been (and often still are) expected to fill in any gaps when it comes to ensuring pupils are fed, even before the pandemic. It isn’t just the families on the free school meals scheme that rely heavily on school dinners. Our headteachers know exactly which families are vulnerable and for some, accessing school meals is not always about affordability.
Each of our schools can identify families who struggle to feed their children in a healthy and regular way that is conducive to learning, regardless of whether they can afford to or not. This was a concern for our school leaders during lockdown, as they felt they had a responsibility to provide additional support to ensure these children’s basic needs were also being met.
Regardless of COVID-19, the free school meals scheme has been a topic of debate over the past few years. However, the discussion soared to the top of the agenda as the summer holidays approached in 2020.
The initial government announcement stating that it would not be providing free school meal vouchers to eligible families during the summer holidays caused a media frenzy, as well as a huge amount of stress and concern for schools and families.
Campaigners threatened legal action and footballer Marcus Rashford made an impassioned plea for a U-turn on the decision. As a child who relied upon free school meals himself, he was more than familiar with ‘school holiday hunger’ growing up.
While the issue was debated and changes discussed, schools did not have the luxury of hypothetical debate and were left having to put together plans for effective provision themselves to ensure their children were fed consistently.
The children within our Trust are not just statistics to us, they are pupils that we care for and we feel we have a responsibility for their health and wellbeing all year round, irrespective of on-going political debate.
We have been very proud of how our school leaders have handled this issue throughout the year. Headteacher of both William Martin Schools and St James’ C of E Primary School, Gina Bailey, is responsible for a large community of families within Harlow.
She told me: “At both our schools we wanted to provide a holistic approach to our support of vulnerable families within the community, as we felt this was the best way to ensure that our pupils would flourish during the pandemic and beyond.
“Alongside providing both food parcels and vouchers, we decided we wanted to do what we could to support entire families during school holidays. By reaching out to local businesses and other schools within the area, we were able collaborate and offer donations to struggling families. We knew this would help to bridge any potential gaps and ensure the holidays remained a special time no matter what.”
Headteacher of Great Clacton C of E Primary School, Karen Jones, recounted how she supported her school community during the pandemic. She said: “We initially provided food hampers to our free school meals families, which parents either collected or we delivered.
After listening to feedback from parents about the contents of the hampers, we decided to revise our offer based on their suggestions, whilst still making sure we were in line with DfE guidance.
“When vouchers became available, we offered our parents the choice of a voucher or a hamper. Our parents really appreciated the choice and although we did not have many choosing the hampers for a variety of reasons, our families that did really enjoyed preparing their lunches with the children using our menu suggestions.
“We also worked with our parish church to offer additional shopping to some of our larger families who were struggling to meet the demand of having to buy, prepare and cook extra meals during lockdown.”
For schools throughout the country, this additional support and charitable donations have been a staple part of guaranteeing that families are supported. It certainly has become very clear to us that there has never been a time when families have needed their schools more than now.
As a Christian Trust we have seen partnerships between our schools, churches and local communities strengthen throughout the year, and feeding the children has often been the focus.
Childwise has reported that 32 per cent of households are experiencing a drop in income since March 2020, leading to an increase of 42 per cent in registers to the free school meals system.
Although these are concerning statistics, there is a silver lining. For some time, there has been a lack of understanding and stigma around applying for a Pupil Premium Grant (PPG) and Free School Meals. Parents and carers would avoid doing so until at least Year 3, as school meals are provided to EYFS and KS1 children regardless.
The pandemic has led to an increase in applications as more families have become eligible. With more families being transparent about requiring help and support, PPG funding has ultimately increased.
This will help to better support more children in the classroom. We know that there are still more children eligible for PPG than are currently registered, and we can only hope that as more families utilise the support, the stigma will decrease for those who are still hesitant.
Ensuring that no family is left behind has been an ongoing challenge. Throughout the year we have done our best to support our schools by ensuring risk assessments were created for every vulnerable child and family within the Trust. These assessments lead to the provision of custom support to those in need of it.
This has included the assignment of a dedicated member of staff making daily phone calls and weekly doorstep visits. Part of this was ensuring food packages or vouchers were delivered without any issues.
For now, schools can only try to support vulnerable families as best they can. Many of those children considered ‘vulnerable’ may not have even accessed their allocated school place during the lockdown periods.
Many of our schools reported that those needing a school place the most didn’t turn up, meaning they have not accessed the learning, support and hot school meals they would have otherwise had. As a Trust we are concerned that now the children have returned to school, the gap between PPG and non-PPG pupils will be wider than ever.
What you can do
Post-COVID, how can schools help to reduce stigma around Pupil Premium Grants and Free School Meals?
- Risk assessments conducted as soon as the children return to school will help to ascertain whether the financial circumstances of your families have changed or if there are any health concerns that have arisen. This will give you a better perspective on the overall attainment gap in your school.
- On the back of this in-depth risk assessment, use what you have learnt to form strong bonds with vulnerable families. Many will be new to the prospect of being considered ‘vulnerable’, but transparent and empathetic conversation should help to curb any rising embarrassment or stigma.
- A practical change that can be made to reducing free school meal stigma is investing in cashless systems and online payments. Many schools have already made this transition, but as the attainment gap increases it has never been more important for children to access food with a level of anonymity.
- As educators, we know that children pick up on most things. If a family is struggling financially, it is likely the children have picked up on these anxieties within the home. Encouraging parents to have honest conversations about money will help pupils to understand why they are receiving free school meals, and why that is a good thing.
Emma Wigmore, CEO of Vine Schools Trust, based in Essex.