Boris Johnson U-turns on His Decision to End Free School Meals for Children Throughout Summer Holidays
In March, when lockdown measures were implemented across the UK, the government launched a voucher scheme to provide free school meals to children from low-income households.
With school closures across the country, the voucher scheme was established in an attempt to ensure that those children who typically receive free school meals would not go hungry.
The scheme made it so that schools could provide every eligible child with a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 to spend at supermarkets while schools were closed due to Coronavirus.
Discussing the scheme back in March, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson explained: “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.”
Yet, three months later, with lockdown measures only gradually beginning to lift, the government recently announced it would not be extending its scheme throughout the school summer holidays. At a time of unprecedented economic instability which has had dire repercussions for families across the UK, this announcement received understandable backlash.
“Whilst 1.3 million children in England are registered for free school meals, one quarter of these children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered.”
Footballer Marcus Rashford, who has become renowned for his fundraising and charity work with food distribution charity FareShare, urged the Prime Minister to U-turn on his decision, reinforcing the difficulties children and families are now faced with.
Since lockdown in the UK began, more than a third of employees in some towns have been furloughed. The Guardian reported this week that Crawley in Sussex, for example, had 33.7% of employees furloughed last month. Under the government’s furlough scheme, employees are temporarily granted leave of absence but continue to receive 80% of their monthly wage.
Yet this has inevitably had critical consequences for families who already struggle to make ends meet. This is not to mention those who have faced permanent layoffs or reductions in hours and pay. It has proved detrimental to people and places with the lowest incomes who are identified as the most vulnerable to job losses.
To bring an end to the voucher scheme throughout the summer holidays for low-income families who may have faced such job losses, furlough or reduced work, would have devastating repercussions for vulnerable children.
“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked”
In light of the government’s announcement, Marcus Rashford wrote a powerful and moving open letter asking the government to reconsider, stressing the importance of providing free meals to poorer children throughout the holidays. Within it, he expressed gratitude towards his community, without which he states he would not be the successful footballer that he is today. He then goes on to explain:
“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.
“As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year.”
Rashford highlights the scale of food poverty across the UK, highlighting that, “Whilst 1.3 million children in England are registered for free school meals, one quarter of these children have not been given any support since the school closures were ordered.”
“This is a system failure and without education we’re encouraging this cycle of hardship to continue. To put this pandemic into perspective, from 2018-2019, nine out of 30 children in any given classroom were living in poverty in the UK. This figure is expected to rise by an additional one million by 2022. In England today, 45% of children in black and minority ethnic groups are now in poverty. This is England in 2020…”
Today – just one day after Rashford published his open letter to the prime minister on social media – Johnson has U-turned, confirming that his government will, in fact, continue the free school meals scheme throughout the holidays.
Rashford’s honesty and activism has been widely applauded, however Gary Lineker has cautioned that it shouldn’t take for a footballer to reveal his personal life struggles to push the government into action. This is a matter of humanity.
[…] it proves that this was always possible – the government’s choice to withhold such spending would be exactly that; a choice.
Lineker raises a valid point regarding the motives behind the government’s acquiescence to demands for policy change and why it takes for an influential public figure to sway this.
Yet Rashford’s successful campaign is certainly worth celebrating. Johnson’s reversal will prove vital for thousands of families struggling to stay afloat, as he has agreed to spend £120m on supermarket vouchers. Crucially, though, it proves that this was always possible – the government’s choice to withhold such spending would be exactly that; a choice.
Expressing his delight upon receiving news of the government’s U-turn, Rashford tweeted: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”