Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:08 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Opposition Whip (Commons) 8:08 pm, 18th January 2021

Throughout this pandemic, a light has been shone on the poverty and inequality in our country like never before. The free school meals fiasco is another example of the Government’s complete lack of sincerity when it comes to tackling inequality in this country. A Government-contracted provider sent a food box that contained a pitiful spoonful of tuna in a tiny coin bag. Someone is profiting from these boxes, and it is not children or families. Perhaps the Secretary of State can throw some light on to that.

I find this a shameful state of affairs for the fifth richest country in the world. I welcome the fact that the Government have agreed with the public that these boxes are unacceptable; however, their contents are very close to the Government guidelines issued for them. Until they were caught out, the Government were happy that children should be fed nutritionally inadequate lunches. When Opposition Members raise such issues with the Government, they rebut us by telling us what they have done and how much funding has been committed—we have just heard an example of that. However, the problems still exist, so if Ministers are serious about this, I urge them to tell us what more they will do to ensure that no child in this country goes hungry.

When schools and colleges closed earlier this month, many pupils went home knowing that they would not be able to access classes the next day. While some children and young people are rightly able to attend school and engage with learning, the wide eligibility of critical workers has led to schools being oversubscribed. I have heard from schools in Brightside and Hillsborough that have had to prioritise children and turn others away. One school with 200 pupils has said that it can accommodate 80 of those safely, but 140 applied for a place. There is a similar story in many schools in my constituency.

With so many pupils unable to attend school, ensuring access to laptops and the internet is vital to mitigate the impact of the learning lost by so many children and young people already. A recent audit by Sheffield City Council found that, across the city, 7,000 children are without suitable devices and 4,500 have no connectivity. We are now into our third week of the national lockdown. Only this week has a free school meals voucher scheme been launched. More than 10,000 children and young people in Sheffield are still waiting to access home learning, along with many more in the country. It is a source of shame for our country to have let our children down so badly. The Government must accept that it is too little and it is too late.

The Government must no longer deny many thousands of children and young learners their right to good nutrition and the learning that they need and deserve. They are our country’s future, and I beg you not to let them down again.