Pressure on the UK government is growing after its own advisory committee on social mobility came out in support of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals, while a former Ofsted chief said the cost was small compared with the amount spent on consultants.
The social mobility commission, an agency of the Department for Education, said it was urging the government to extend the free meals during school holidays until Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, as part of a wider move to combat child poverty.
“We know that the current pandemic is having its greatest impact on the poorest regions in Britain where people are already struggling to afford food for their families,” said a spokesperson.
Citing the commission’s research from earlier this year, which showed that 600,000 more children were in poverty than in 2012, they added: “We believe the government should do all it can to start reversing that trend. It should begin by ensuring that all children are properly fed. But it needs to go much further. We now need a much more ambitious programme to combat child poverty.”
The government’s refusal to extend free school meals was described as “astonishing” by Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted from 2012 until 2016.
He told the Guardian: “It’s clear that there are a lot of children who have suffered already a great deal during the pandemic and whose family circumstances have actually worsened over the months.
“It would also be a small amount of money in comparison to what has gone, for example, into the furlough scheme or indeed what is paid to consultants.”
The government has spent more than £210bn in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including more than £175m on consultants. Funding £15-a-week food vouchers for the 1.4 million children registered to receive free school meals would cost about £21m a week.
The intervention of another respected voice came as the campaign by Rashford, the England footballer, was bolstered by heavyweight corporate support.
This included Weetabix, Nestle, Hovis bread and Sainsbury’s, which tweeted that it was “proud to stand” with Rashford’s taskforce as it set out to eliminate child food poverty.
Rashford’s club, Manchester United, also stepped in on Monday as part of a partnership with the food charity FareShare, a founding member of his taskforce, which will result in 5,000 meals being cooked and delivered to local school children each day this week.
Food provided by FareShare will be made into individual meals by staff at the club’s Old Trafford ground’s kitchen facilities and shipped to local Manchester United Foundation partner schools.
Wilshaw, who recently returned to the education frontline by doing supply teaching for a secondary school in London, appealed for a focus to continue to be national, adding: “You have to look not just at what schools are doing in the poorest parts of the country, because poor children in affluent areas often get overlooked.”
His biggest concern was that the attainment gap between poorer pupils on free school meals and their better-off peers had stopped closing for the first time in 10 years, according to research published this year by the Education Policy Institute, which counts Wilshaw as one of its trustees.
As cafe owners and restaurateurs across England stepped in to begin providing school meals on the first day of the school holidays, a union representing headteachers and others said the issue “had shone a light on the hardship faced by many families not only now but in normal times”.
“It is shameful that in a wealthy nation likes ours, holiday hunger is a fact of life for far too many children,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
Frustrated by government inaction, Jules White, a secondary school headteacher in West Sussex and leader of the Worth Less? campaign for better funding for schools, has meanwhile used £2,000 of his school budget to pay for free school meals over half-term.
White’s school, Tanbridge House in Horsham, is in a relatively affluent area but 15% of its 1,500 pupils are eligible for free school meals.
“Everyone is pretty cross about free school meals. It seems so tin-eared … We decided to fund it just direct from our school budget. We went up to Tesco’s and bought £2,000-worth of £20 vouchers because we didn’t want kids to go hungry.”
White informed parents and within 24 hours they had pledged donations to match the outlay.