As children across England return to school this week, the government should prove it has learned from its mistakes after school closures during Covid-19 left pupils going hungry. Department for Education (DfE) guidance published late last week, just days before the start of term, offers three opportunities to help tackle child hunger.
First, the DfE guidance makes clear that, should the pandemic force schools to close again, its preferred option will be food parcel delivery. Our research exposed flaws in the government’s supermarket voucher scheme set up in haste in late March and showed that food parcels can work better. So too can direct cash transfers to families in poverty, as Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales’ devolved administrations have shown. The government should keep cash transfers open as an option for families in England.
Second, immigration status should not mean children from poor families have to go hungry during the school day. The DfE’s guidance temporarily continues meal support to children whose “No Recourse to Public Funds” immigration status meant they weren’t eligible for free school meals. The government should make this a permanent policy across the United Kingdom (UK).
Third, the government’s decision, under public pressure, to extend food aid through the summer vacation this year, was belated but important. A limited number of DfE-funded pilot food projects took place in previous summers, but more systemic action is needed to tackle “holiday hunger,” and the government should follow the National Food Strategy’s recommendations on this.
The UK government’s wider record on education in England during Covid-19 hasn’t been good. Consider the chaos generated by its algorithm-generated grading system, delays distributing laptops to kids who needed them for distance learning, and how a watering down of legal obligations left some children with disabilities and what are known in English law as special educational needs without adequate support. The pandemic has also strengthened calls to increase social security support for families with children, as families find their finances stretched.
There is – to use a classic schoolteacher’s phrase – “plenty of room for improvement.” But some of the things the government can and should do are really quite simple. Children can’t learn on empty stomachs, and the government should ensure children’s right to food. Children from families living in poverty should have enough to eat – whether schools are open or closed.