The school closures during the pandemic revealed how vulnerable those children are who rely on free meals at school to help alleviate food poverty at home.
At the start of the lockdown in January, a mother posted a picture on social media of the free school meal parcel that she had received. The supposed £30 worth of pictured food meant to last 10 days looked to be worth only £5.22. Her post prompted mass outrage and an abrupt change in how the government would assist families whose children would qualify for free school meals.
In addition to the option of a food parcel, the government launched the national voucher scheme, enabling families to order online £15 worth of supermarket vouchers per child.
In Northamptonshire, there are 17,001 children who qualify for free school meals. The Northamptonshire County Council announced that they would distribute vouchers after the food hampers were widely panned as inadequate.
All children in Reception, year 1 and year 2 are entitled to free school meals under the Universal Infant School Meals Scheme. If a family is eligible for benefits, which depends on income-related allowances, as well as pension, tax, and universal credit they can apply for their school to receive a pupil premium, which is additional school funding paid directly to the school to help improve the quality of education.
Parents can apply for free school meals for older children in full-time education up to the age of 18 if they are in receipt of certain benefits. If a child is eligible for free school meals, the school will automatically receive a pupil premium payment. Both Oundle Primary School and Prince William School have been actively involved.
In response to a Freedom of Information request, the NCC said OPS had 22 pupils eligible for free school meals in Years 3-6 in January 2020. This increased to 29 pupils in January 2021.
At Prince William School, there were 70 eligible pupils in January 2020, which increased to 101 pupils in January 2021.
The increases at both schools are an indicator of how the pandemic has left more families financially vulnerable.
In a controversial vote in October, 322 Conservative MPs voted down a Labour motion to extend free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021. East Northamptonshire Conservative MP Tom Pursglove was appointed to verify the count as a teller for the vote, so his vote did not officially count.
For the October half term break last year, Northamptonshire County Council announced that they would fund £15 vouchers per child, at a cost of £255,015, using the money received from central government to the council for Covid-19-related costs, which included support for children. Parents applied for the vouchers online and received them by email.
In November, the government announced a Covid Winter Grant Scheme that provided funding to support free school meals during the Christmas and half term holidays.
During the period from January until March this year when pupils stayed at home, schools were able to claim additional funding for either food parcels or vouchers for families entitled to free school meals.
In February, the East Midlands Academy Trust, which runs the Prince William school, was awarded the prestigious Rose of Northamptonshire Award that celebrates unsung heroes during the pandemic. The award recognized the trust’s work to support families in need during the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020. The national school closures last spring and the delay in the introduction of the food voucher scheme meant families that had originally been relying on free school meals were facing severe difficulties. EMAT managed to provide a total of 35,000 meals to be collected or delivered to families from its seven schools.
Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire James Saunders Watson, who led the virtual award presentation, commented: “The 35,000 meals EMAT provided is a fantastic amount and will have kept those families going at a time when they would have felt most vulnerable, so many, many congratulations.”