School is and always will be the safest and best place for a pupil to learn. Delivering remote education is a real challenge, as not every pupil has an environment at home that is easy to work in or has the necessary technology and connectivity. It is equally challenging for teachers to try to replicate as much as possible the learning environment of a normal classroom setting. Some £400 million has been spent on supporting schools and colleges in moving to remote provision, so that every child can access the education they deserve, with 700,000 laptops and tablets and 54,000 4G routers delivered. That is alongside the £5 million spent on our unsung heroes of the pandemic, the Oak National Academy.
With regard to free school meals, it is disappointing and disheartening to see the Labour party wanting to politicise such an important topic. I spent eight and a half years working as a teacher and a head of year in state secondary schools across London and Birmingham. Every day, I worked tirelessly to ensure that the next generation had the education they deserved, as well as looking after their welfare and wellbeing, in the privileged position of loco parentis. I understand how important free school meals are to young people and their families, yet the Labour party spreads misleading graphics, creating anger due to falsehoods, which leads to people calling colleagues and me “Tory scum”, to echo the comment made by the deputy leader of the Labour party towards my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson.
Those in the Labour party seem to believe that they own the monopoly on compassion; they believe that my being a Conservative somehow means that I do not care about the most vulnerable in my community. This is student union politics, intent on pitting people against one another, whereas we should recognise that child holiday hunger is an issue that should unite rather than divide us.
To help to tackle holiday hunger over the winter, including the February half-term, the Government announced a £170 million winter support package for not just those eligible for free school meals, but those of pre-school age and vulnerable and elderly adults in our local communities. That is in addition to the £63 million given to local authorities last June for food and other essential support. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has used the collected £1.5 million of funding wisely. Some 80,640 free school meals will be provided for students, with £110,000 for Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank, £30,000 for the amazing Hubb Foundation, which will partly fund slow cookers, ingredients and recipe cards for families for 12 weeks, and £60,000 for local charity Beat the Cold to provide 100,000 fuel vouchers to vulnerable households affected by fuel poverty.
I fully support the £220 million for the holiday activities and food programme, which means that this calendar year, a place can be offered to every child who is eligible for free school meals, enabling them to benefit from a healthy, nutritious meal, alongside physical and mental stimulation, which is equally important to a young person’s health.