Coronavirus: What’s happening to free school meals this summer?

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Millions of poorer children on free school meals have been sent food vouchers and parcels while at home during lockdown.

Footballer Marcus Rashford and others have asked the government in England to rethink its decision to stop its voucher scheme during the summer holidays.

But who is eligible for free school meals and how do they work?

Which children get free school meals?

Free school meals have been at least partially funded by the government for more than a century. Eligibility varies slightly between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because the nations set their own rules.

In England, about 1.3 million children are eligible for free school meals.

Since September 2014, this has included all infant state school pupils, who are aged four to seven.

Aside from that, children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible, from government-maintained nurseries through to sixth forms.

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Image caption

Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford has written to MPs asking for school meals vouchers to continue over the summer

New claims made from April 2018 must come from households earning a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits. It’s the same in Scotland and Wales, but in Northern Ireland the household income threshold is £14,000

If a child qualifies for school meals they remain eligible until they finish the phase of school they’re in as of 31 March 2022, whether primary or secondary.

How has the scheme changed during coronavirus?

The majority of children have not been at school during the coronavirus pandemic. This has prompted concerns those eligible for free school meals could “fall through the cracks” and go hungry.

Each nation has been offering alternative support, but only Scotland and Wales say this will continue in the same form during the summer holidays.

During term time, the government in England expects schools to support pupils eligible for free school meals through an alternative scheme, such as:

  • Food parcels for collection or delivery
  • The government’s centrally-funded national voucher scheme
  • Alternative vouchers for a local shop or supermarket

Many families have been issued with either an electronic voucher or gift card worth £15 each week, to spend at supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S.

But the system has suffered problems including schools struggling to log on, parents being unable to download them and some saying the vouchers failed when they tried to use them.

The programme, which has already cost more than £129m, ran throughout Easter and May half-term holidays, but will not continue in the summer holidays.

What did Marcus Rashford say?

Calling for the government in England to change its decision, Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford said his family had once relied on free school meals. “The system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed,” he said.

Campaigners have also threatened legal action against the government for not extending the food voucher scheme.

The Department for Education said food parcels will still be available and schools that can’t implement these will be allowed to offer vouchers. It also pointed to a new £63m local authority welfare assistance scheme to support the most vulnerable families.

What is happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

  • In Wales, the government will support children on free school meals with food vouchers, meal delivery or bank transfer until children go back to school
  • The same is true in Scotland, where children are expected to return to school in August
  • In Northern Ireland, free school meal payments will stop over the summer holidays, the education minister has said

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